Beast-Angels Like Us

Beast Angel Embrace.jpg

“I’ll never forgive myself,” Marie said, looking pitiful. I was in an addiction treatment group circle with Marie and a dozen others. Twenty years before she had a baby girl who died. Though no charges were filed, Marie admitted to us her drinking was a key factor in the neglect that led to the baby’s death. Now in her late-forties, she was struggling to face this and other failures and humiliations caused by three decades of hard drinking.

Of all Marie’s heartaches the baby’s death certainly seemed the most punishing. Our society reserves a special shaming for women judged as “bad mothers” – especially those who abuse substances. By declaring herself unforgivable, Marie gave voice to a shame heaped upon her by others and now she heaped it upon herself. Was she unforgivable as she supposed? The normally talkative group fell silent.

Finally another woman spoke up and with great tenderness asked, “Marie, are there any advantages to not forgiving yourself?”

“No, there’s nothing good about not forgiving yourself,” she answered.

“Then why do you continue to not forgive yourself?”

“I don’t know,” said Marie.

The woman persisted, but not unkindly, “I think maybe there is something you find useful about not forgiving yourself. Can you think of what that might be?”

“No.” There was now an edge of defiance in Marie’s voice.

“As long as you don’t forgive yourself for your baby’s death,” the woman said softly, “you have a reason to continue drinking.”

Now this was a twist I didn’t expect and the intensity of the insight gave me goosebumps. By the time the group was over Marie seemed relieved, her burden somewhat lifted. Why then did she collude with her miserable shame for so many years by declaring herself incapable or unwilling to forgive herself?

As they say, addiction is the human condition writ large and the shame dynamic we observe in Marie’s life is likely universal to the human condition. As Ernest Kurtz writes in his outstanding book Shame and Guilt:

Shame contains a “not” – the “not” imposed by essential limitation. That “not” is to be neither severed nor undone: it is lodged in the very essence of our human be-ing. To be honestly human is to be aware that one falls short – to accept that the ability to be is also the ability to be not. Thus, to be human is to experience shame – to feel “bad” about the not-ness lodged in one’s essence.

To say human beings feel “bad” about shame is a vast understatement. Shame is agonizing and fear of exposure leads us to expend enormous mental and emotional energy to keep shame well hidden, even defending its foul existence with declarations like, “I will never forgive myself” or “I will always feel this way.” When shame is exerting its power, we hide and human connection is lost. Shame brings isolation, alienation and loneliness. One cannot begin to measure the sum of human misery in the world attributable to this.

Why does shame feel bad? Does it have to? Kurtz observes the painful power of shame stems from how deeply rooted is our conflicted response to our dual nature as beast-angels:

Why this feeling-bad of shame? Because of the anomalous nature of the human as beast-angel, as essentially limited yet craving unlimitedness. The anomaly is inherent, for to be human is to be “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Confronted with the task of being human, one must live both its polarities: one cannot be only either… Inevitably one falls short of being either beast or angel – neither can be total so long as both are actual.

Beast-angels: rational-animals. The “angel” represented by all that is uniquely human: our reason, the ability to think conceptually, to aspire for the eternal, to live principled lives, examined lives, and maybe even to love. The “beast” in us is represented by the body and all that is demanding and finite about it. Despite its wondrous beauty it is also crude, it harasses us with its desires and attachments, and it will weaken and die someday.

In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker bluntly states human beings are “gods who shit” and that we are typically burdened and shamed by the contrast. It’s not hard to observe people who attempt to resolve this by alternately living all one way or the other: do the “responsible” thing during the week, party hard on weekends. This is a distraction from the more difficult work of reconciling the two natures.

The process of resolving the shame-filled dread of one’s life begins with self-acceptance. Self-acceptance means accepting one’s human limitations. This cannot be done in secret, it requires renewing open connections, reversing the isolation with supportive and understanding human beings, the way Marie did it. As Kurtz puts it, …to be real is to be limited, and to be limited is to be real…. for limitation proves reality. This understanding enables joyous acceptance of the human condition. For beast-angels like us, self-acceptance bridges the gap between the two natures, reducing shame and making self-forgiveness possible. When we are okay with all “we be” and all “we be not” the fruit is sublime, spontaneous, unavoidable joy. People often speak of this experience as an awakening.

The strange and wonderful paradox is this: In self-acceptance we are most open to genuine change. In self- condemnation we consent to remain the same. I often hear people talk of “finding themselves” as if the process is nothing but one happy discovery after another. But facing ourselves as beast-angels means embracing the light and the shadow co-existing within. As Ernest Kurtz writes: … accepting the reality of self-as-feared is the essential pre-condition of finding the reality of self-as-is.

Earth connected


Posted in addiction, Alcohol and drinking, Depression, dual nature, Facing old wounds, forgiveness, freedom, Grief, happiness, Joy, Kierkegaard, meaningful life, philosophy, recovery, sexuality, shame, sobriety, spirituality, substance abuse, Suffering, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Scream

Irish Speech

You wouldn’t expect an American to suffer much culture shock in Ireland; so similar are the two nations’ customs and values. But after a month living in a remote area of northwest Ireland I felt disconnected and discouraged. The people there were friendly and kind, but their Irish accents were so thick I often had no idea what they were talking about. The effort it took to listen hard for even a fragment of understanding was wearing me out.

Fortunately, Irish radio programs came to my rescue: news, interviews, music and sports broadcasts. The radio voices were still accented, but they were clear and winsome, and they eased my isolation like a conversation with a friend. Journalists were a pleasure to listen to: well-informed, direct and sincere. The melodious Irish voice made even the Farm Report interesting.

Interviews with Irish athletes were great fun, with their quirky, honest comments such as explaining how a player was absent because he was still “on the piss,” or the how certain referees were “wankers.” There were personalities with great names like Mossy Quinn being asked, “So, can the Dubliners hold on to the lead, Mossy?” I loved hearing all their opinions. One sports commentator insisted Muhammad Ali was Irish.

I recall my bafflement listening to a story about the history of whoring. It was about how in the past only men were allowed to participate in whoring. If women tried to get involved with whoring, they were beaten and imprisoned. How could that be? It took me a while, but I finally figured out the announcer was saying hurling not whoring. Hurling is a beloved sport in Ireland, similar to field hockey. That made the story only slightly less weird.

From the radio talk shows I learned the Irish people were generous and open to receiving Syrian refugees. The music programs were consistently interesting, assuming one didn’t mind half of them being about Van Morrison. I happen to like his music, and so one day an advertisement for a band that played only Van Morrison music caught my eye. The band’s unique approach was that all songs were to be sung, not in English, but in Irish.

This was intriguing, but I still hesitated because over the years I’d grown weary of live music shows. I frequently felt an awkward, self-conscious irritation with musicians for excessive “performing” – the contrived mugging and bizarre facial contortions they seem to think is required. “Just play the music!” – I want to say. I usually prefer hearing music in a disembodied way; melodies wafting through the ether in the dark, sort of like one gets from the radio. I bought a ticket for the concert anyway.

At the theater I snagged a front row seat. The crowd was middle-aged and mellow. Suddenly ten musicians pounced onto the stage and started rocking out, catching the audience off-guard.

This was good. There was something about this band that was straightforward and free of the performer’s guile that usually bothered me. I knew many of the songs with the English lyrics, but there were several songs I’d never heard before. The Irish words were mesmerizing.

For a change I felt very unself-conscious, which mirrored my perception that the musicians were sincerely into each song, and not just “performing” in an affected way. I got into the songs too and was so enthused, I ceased paying attention to the crowd around me. It was just the band and me, jumping up, whooping it up, whatever I felt. The musicians on my side of the stage seemed to notice my antics and I think they liked it, smiling at me and nodding.

One of the songs I’d never heard before was Ballerina. That title suggests something pretty and delicate, but they played the song with a hard edge. At one point the lead singer let loose a soulful howl, more like a scream. My eyes were locked on him and when he screamed, not only did he really mean it, but I felt like I was screaming as well, somehow inhabiting his scream, strange as that may sound. I’d never had that feeling before; it was connecting and transcending as if I had received the music into my body. My chest was full of emotion; the scream located dead center. In that moment an astonishing new thought exploded in my head: I don’t ever want to feel ashamed of myself again.

What in the world was that, I wondered, feeling stunned and relieved and delighted all at once. After the last song, the band ran off, but I clamored for an encore. When they came back, the musicians near me also looked delighted; laughing and giving me a thumbs up.
I left the theater feeling so light and airy, like I could fly home, but I just couldn’t go home yet. I sat down on some steps and looked around. This was Main Street Letterkenny. The Autumn air was chill, I could smell pizza nearby, and there were lively people all around. I could hear a guitar player strumming somewhere; it was Saturday night. The eyes of my soul seemed to be directed outward in all directions, even as my senses took everything in. There was no self-concern; I was accepting of everything I saw and felt without judgment.

This was a state of super-receptivity, birthed by the music and the musicians, and consecrated by a scream. I don’t recall ever having screamed in my entire life. But this vicarious scream, from a song I didn’t know in a language I couldn’t understand, overshadowed my usual way of thinking things out. The scream was like a new language, received like a radio transmission, with gifts to offer.

I looked again with affection at the people streaming this way and that. This was sweet and clear and distinctly sober. And I’m thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time?

Posted in Facing old wounds, freedom, Grief, happiness, Ireland, Joy, Music, philosophy, recovery, sobriety, spirituality, sports, substance abuse, Suffering, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Good Lawyer and a Sad Son


Once I was invited to the retirement party of a fond acquaintance, a well respected lawyer. He was a man I personally knew to be honest as well as exceedingly good at his profession. The party was fun; full of toasts and speeches commemorating the career of this good and admirable man. He sure helped a lot of people. Here was a guy who had really made it, and he did it in the right way.

After the formal part of the festivities, the guests were scattered throughout the large, bright room, happily socializing. I noticed the guest of honor, the lawyer, quietly slip away through a side door of the room with, if I wasn’t mistaken, an expression of alarm. I followed my hunch and found him in a secluded spot, very upset.

He was ready to talk about a topic I didn’t expect: his troubled relationship with his father. The father had been a cold man, stingy with affection and praise. This retirement party, overflowing with praise and appreciation, stirred memories of the lawyer’s intense longing for the praise and appreciation of the one important person who withheld it, his dad.

His father respected professional men – doctors and lawyers – so the son went to law school. On graduation day, the father remarked that a man wasn’t “a real lawyer” until he passed the bar exam. On the day the son passed the bar exam his father responded with a frown, “Well, do you think you can handle it?”

I kept quiet and listened, aware I was seeing this dear man’s deepest wound. His eyes were wet and his face a mix of despair and choked anger. He was now nearly seventy years old, his father long dead. On this day, dedicated to celebrating his own well-lived adult life, his wound, begun probably in childhood, still festered inside. His experience is well described by the poet Robert Bly: “If a young man is not being admired by an older man, the young man is being wounded.”

What does it feel like to carry this kind of pain day after day, year after year; a deep pain that never really goes away through the seasons of life? We don’t have to wonder for very long because I think we all know. It is part of the universal human condition to be wounded in some way, and every one of us is vexed by the remnants of emotional injury.

We could hear laughter from the party. The lawyer gathered himself and we went back in. A short time later he too was laughing with the guests, looking as though he hadn’t a care in the world. But I was still disturbed. His poignant description of a pain carried too long called forth my own hidden pain, now agitated and asking for attention.

Later I reflected on the difficulty of resolving, not to mention healing, this kind of damage to the inner life. No matter how well put together people are on the outside, every jack one of them has a secret place deep inside that is a repository for their worst personal pain. It is the dank, dark basement of the soul with thick walls, where nobody wants to go. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck describes it this way, “Everyone concealed that little hell in himself, while publicly pretending it did not exist – and when he was caught up in it he was completely helpless.”

Feeling helpless and vulnerable is dreadful, and we may do anything to avoid it, and so we tend to push down our deepest pain. But emotional pain doesn’t always do as it is told; in fact, it never does for long. Though confined, it eventually surfaces anyway, but often in disguise as depression, anxiety, shame or self-doubt, or even physical illness. Hidden wounds don’t want to remain hidden. Still, a man hiding his sorrow is as old as the human race.

In his book The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz describes how we may feel trapped by our wounds, imprisoned by our own hidden history and react to it by repeating mistakes and self-defeating behaviors. Yet those same mistakes and self-defeating behaviors are also emissaries, delivering messages about something inside needing attention.

Grosz describes the experience of American soldiers captured during the Vietnam War. The soldiers, often kept in brutal solitary confinement, learned to communicate with each other through an ingenious system of tapping a code on the walls of the cells that separated them. Their tapping and listening skills became so sophisticated that they were able to discern, through only a few taps, the mood of the message sender; if he was hopeful or depressed, for example.

Grosz quotes philosopher Simone Weil on this same phenomenon of prisoner tapping: “The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication,” she said. “Every separation is a link.” Walling off our emotional wounds to protect ourselves from further suffering is an understandable impulse. But the pain imprisoned inside us is tapping on the wall, always tapping, trying to forge a link to the conscious mind, to be understood, to be accepted, to be healed. Weil says the wall, “…is the barrier. At the same time it is the way through.” What beautiful irony that is; fortunate for us because it suggests the possibility our suffering, while often hideous, may contain the seeds of its own redemption. Our agonies and traumas are not meaningless; they can serve a greater good. May I suggest one of those greater goods?

One of the grotesque things about emotional woundedness is its cozy relationship with shame. The wound is bad enough by itself, but then we, the wounded, heap additional shame upon the wound. The shame is the jailer, keeping the wound locked up in darkness and secrecy, where it remains infected and able to exert its serpentine influence. Quite often the biggest difficulty to facing the deep wound is getting past the shame that blocks access.

Entrenched shame does more than perpetuate misery from the wound, however. Shame is also an enemy to intimacy in relationships. And now we get to the heart of the matter. Here is the sensational greater good that emerges from the courageous work of facing old wounds.

By sharing our pain with a worthy other, someone who can listen with affection and not judgement, we begin learning how to become known, to be seen as we are: first to another, then to ourselves. We begin to experience the nourishing relationship between self-acceptance and intimacy, which is essential for the art of giving and receiving love with our whole self.

Beyond wounds, beyond grievances, beyond acclaim, beyond professional and material success, even beyond great sex, meaningful love reigns supreme. Love, based on the truth of who we are, is the pearl of great price.

Who would have thought that the dreaded experience of woundedness could be connected to the much desired attainment of love? In the pilgrimage of life everything is connected, even as we attempt to disconnect things.  You can see how holding onto old pain could be an effective defense against the risks of true intimacy.

But it’s not really effective because we hear the tapping.  As my lawyer friend discovered on his day of celebration, his greatest sorrow showed up as well; an uninvited guest, but one that would not be denied admittance.

“Every separation is a link,” is a terrifying and wonderful statement. Intentionally seeking out our hidden pain may seem impossibly frightening at first, but if we incline our ears to the tapping and move towards the wall, we may end up getting what our wounded souls are really looking for.

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The Need to Read

Calvin 2For book lovers, being stuck in a place without something good to read can be a painful affair. I found myself in that position recently in the remote, small town of Buncrana, Ireland.

I finished the books I had on hand and had no success finding anything interesting in the disorganized book bins of the “Charity Shops” on Main Street. A kind soul told me there was a funky used bookstore in Letterkenny, a larger nearby town. Fortune smiled on me because just then a bus going to Letterkenny rumbled down the street. I flagged it down and off I went. A car would cut the travel time in half, but lacking a vehicle I resigned myself to enduring forty-five vacant minutes on the bus without anything to read.

Once on-board though, my attention was piqued by the other passengers. There was a young couple in lively conversation. The woman’s speech was clear enough, but the man’s rapid and thick Irish brogue was as indecipherable to me as Swahili. It was fun trying to speculate on what he said by what she said.

We passed a bus going in the opposite direction. Our taciturn driver and theirs exchanged a polite wave. How do I know it was a polite wave and not the wave of old friends, or of rivals, or of brothers? I don’t. I wondered what the two men’s stories were.

An elderly man sat a little ahead of me across the aisle, silent and motionless. Suddenly he lifted his head in time to see a small stone church with a graveyard pass by. Communing with a grace or a grief known only to him, he gently crossed himself.

This led me to direct my attention to my own inner world. Why was I even on this bus? Oh yes, book hunting, but why? It’s fun, but what was I really after? The joy of reading and learning? The avoidance of boredom? Maybe, but there was something else. As I thought about my need to read, a fifty-year-old memory startled me.

When my older sister first went off to kindergarten, I was bereft. To console me my mother took me on walks through the neighborhood, saying, “Let’s see if we can find something important!” This was great fun. My little world came alive with the thrill of the hunt as I focused my attention on items I usually ignored. I picked up a bottle cap. “Mom, is this important?” It was important to my sister, who used bottle caps for her artwork. Into my pocket it went. There’s a stick, twisted in a weird way. How about a soda can? No, not a keeper. Finding a penny was like gold.

Irish BusPondering this memory while on a bus rolling through the Irish countryside I entered into an extraordinary feeling of connection with my mom and with my curious younger self. Surely in my present book hunt I was reenacting something, likewise hoping to “find something important.” I felt full and rich as I sat with these feelings linking past and present; a small but pleasing insight into my current behavior. Whatever mental state this was – excitement, contentment, love – I was in a good place. This bus ride was anything but vacant. The thrill of paying attention coincided with the joy of discovery; the delight of finding meaning and value where I previously thought there was none.

The gentle sweetness of this recollection reminded me to regard my attention as a precious thing, and to be more selective about where I placed it and not to squander it. This can be quite a challenge in a world that presents so many options for what to look at, listen to and think about. It is far easier to passively respond to whatever presents itself the loudest or most urgent. This passivity can foster a sort of “learned helplessness” leading to a dependency on the loud and urgent for motivation.

Knife in outletA common example: a man is unable to complete an assignment until the deadline looms, thus creating an artificial urgency without which he can’t command his energies and focus his attention to complete the task. The man insists he “needs” the tyrannizing last minute pressure, because without it he believes nothing is happening within himself to draw from.

There are times in my day I am tempted to think nothing is happening, like when riding a bus or being in between this or that activity. This practice of directing my attention to the present moment, what is going on around me and within me right now, has proved to me that in the spaciousness of the human body and soul there is never nothing happening.

Practicing this attentiveness, sometimes called mindfulness, requires effort, but what a thrill when our powers of attention grow strong and nimble and can be employed freely. Perhaps the common usage of the term “will power” is better understood as attention power. This is a high order of freedom when achieved through natural effort. Yet the process can seem puzzling: I am doing something intentional, but I’m not fully in charge of the outcome. It is not the same as fantasizing or daydreaming as there is more discovery than creation going on, more surrender than orchestration.

This cultivated inner space has become a mental and emotional sanctuary for me; partly a place of refuge and also a place to do active work, seeing what’s there and trying to understand it. It is a safe place where I can “find something important” among things previously ignored as insignificant or too unpleasant. There I discover a need of mine that goes well beyond my immediate desires: the need to read the self. This kind of sanctuary is sometimes bittersweet, but even then it is a lovely and meaningful place to be. And, I believe, it is within the reach of every person.

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Endings and Beginnings

Hippo ParentsAs a kid, after my parents put me and my sisters to bed, I would sometimes sneak back out to a hidden spot on the stairwell to eavesdrop on the adult conversation. My mother and father seemed happier at that time of night, and I was soothed by their relaxed voices and unguarded laughter. I suspect I also hungered for a secret connection with them and for reassurance that the grown-up world was well in control of everything good in life.

Around that time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was five years old. My strongest memory of that event was how upset the grown-ups were, and how uncensored were their distraught reactions in front of me as the news spread. I had no anxiety about the reality of death, unaware as I was at that age of endings and beginnings, so this window into the adult realm was exciting. It felt as if I were eavesdropping on the whole grown-up world.

A few weeks after that, an old man who lived on our street also died. This was my first encounter with the death of someone personally known to me and it did upset me. When someone dies it means they go away, I realized. I became concerned about the most important old person in my life, my grandmother.

“Mom, is grandma going to die?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t say that!” she said, wincing. And so we didn’t talk about death. But I sure wanted to talk about it, and I did with an older boy on my street. He let me in on the shocking, if open, secret: “Everybody dies someday,” he said. “Even you.”

His words hit hard. If I was going to die someday, then where would I go? The grown-ups’ Man Floating Awaysevere reactions to the President getting shot now had a different feeling to it. Everybody dies someday. If the grown-ups were not in control of this then who was? I recall a sharp increase of anxiety in my life at that time. Dying wasn’t just for old people, and I was certain I didn’t want to die.

By nature everything in us fights to live, and yet that’s ultimately a losing battle. The billions of human lives currently on Earth will nearly all be gone in another century, replaced by others who will also die. The suggestion of meaninglessness and possible annihilation could easily tempt one to cynicism, despair, or worse. Joseph Conrad Heart of Darknesscaptures the sickening emptiness in the bald apprehension of death through his narrator in Heart of Darkness:

I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.

No wonder my own sweet mother found death difficult to talk about. But we must talk about it and face the anxiety that may attend it. As psychologist Irvin Yalom writes, “…given the centrality of death in our existence, given that life and death are interdependent, how can we possibly ignore it?” Well, we can’t truly ignore the terror of death for long, nor should we. “Though the physicality of death destroys us,” Yalom continues, “the idea of death may save us.” An intriguing paradox for sure, but how do we make sense of it in the present?

We find help in an essay entitled Ignorance, by philosopher Wendell Berry, where he expounds on how a human being, properly subordinated to the limits of his human nature and life, may experience, not terror, but simultaneous grief and joy, where death and life embrace as collaborators, not adversaries.

To illustrate, Berry describes one of the fascinating subplots of King Lear where the Earl of Gloucester, once a politically powerful man now blinded, destitute and suicidal, is aided by Edgar, the son he falsely accused and drove away. Edgar conceals his identity in order to help his blind father.

In an intense father-son role reversal, Edgar becomes his father’s physical and spiritual Gloucester and Edgarguide, leading the despondent Gloucester into thinking he’s thrown himself off a cliff to die, when in reality the Earl leaps off only a small rise of ground, high enough to be jarring but not fatal. Edgar, the consummate benevolent trickster, pretends further to be a passerby who, after witnessing the failed suicide attempt, proclaims these transformative words to the still despairing Gloucester:

Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

Edgar’s life-affirming, grown-up words eventually call Gloucester back from the childlike despair and anxiety that led him to give up on his humanity, Berry observes. When Gloucester was able to look past the earthly reality of life and death to embrace the miraculous, rooted in the sublime mystery of human existence, his humanity was restored and his life preserved. Somewhere between the fearful child-self and the grandiose god-self was the actual man, whose life was worth living.

Gloucester, like Lear, was guilty of the hubris of the powerful that thinks human life may be agreeably and reliably manipulated if one is powerful enough or shrewd enough. In his arrogance, Gloucester “treated life as knowable, predictable and in his control,” writes Berry. This mechanistic view denies the miraculous and the mysterious, and regards life as a commodity subject to man, rather than man being subject to life and its constraints. As they say in the 12-Step recovery world, unless we accept life on life’s terms, we are headed for misery.

Misery came to Gloucester in his crushing fall from power, leading him to give up on his human life and choose death, though suicide is not the only way to give up on one’s humanity, Berry contends. Gloucester gave up on his humanity long before his political defeat; his desire to die was merely a further representation of his hubris. “Gloucester’s attempted suicide is really an attempt to recover [god-like] control over his life – a control he believes (mistakenly) he once had and lost….The nature of his despair is delineated in his belief that he can control his life by killing himself,” writes Berry.

A modern day version of that hubris may be the common belief that with enough time, talent and money one can get everything one wants in life. But the obvious reality is that man did not birth himself and making himself a god cannot prevent loss and grief and death. With one foot in life and the other in death, the warped and fallen god-man Kurtz in Heart of Darkness urges us to avoid his fate; his warning offered in his death whisper: “The horror! The horror!”

According to Wendell Berry, and perhaps William Shakespeare, grasping that “life is a miracle” involves releasing one’s ultimate trust in human agency – the desperate pursuit of a life without limits – which is an anxiety-ridden quest for the un-miraculous.

Gloucester eventually takes heed to this warning and has a different end than Kurtz. He Gloucester Restoredrecognizes, for possibly the first time, the truth of his limits, his endings, which yields a strange and peaceful joy out of his grief – a new beginning. He reclaims his life, and his inspired utterance is almost a psalm:

You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me;
Let not my worser spirit tempt me again
To die before you please.

Twenty years after JFK’s death, at a time I felt great anxiety about the grown-up world I was now supposed to inhabit, I was at my precious grandmother’s bedside in the hospital. She was unconscious, and dying. I was trying to talk to her, hoping she could hear me. One of my uncles arrived and stood at the foot of the bed and began to cry, which provoked others present to cry as well.

Upset and frightened as I was, I might have cried too, but I didn’t. Instead, a mysterious awareness settled on me, a peaceful and ecstatic touch, that made all other concerns pale in comparison. I suddenly had a strong sense, even a knowledge, that my grandmother was going to be alright in death, and that I was going to be alright in life. It was the utmost opposite of anxiety, a simultaneous ending and beginning, and it was awesome. As I witnessed the end of a life I loved – my grandmother’s – Life itself seemed far more expansive and grand than I imagined before. It wasn’t something I needed to make different or control. Life just was, and it was good. In that miraculous moment I was enabled to better accept Life on its own terms, how it begins and ends, to be okay with my existence in it, and also be okay with the “ever-gentle gods” who will decide my death, when it pleases them.

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I Dig Your Mirth

Hippie busIn the late 1970s I lived in a rural university town where a significant number of people were thought of as hippies. They rejected prevailing bourgeois values and led back-to-the-land lifestyles. I respected their bold, independent ways and imagined myself a kindred spirit, even though I myself was thoroughly bourgeois.

One day I was reading a book in the “radical cafe” near the campus when a hippy-man sat down at my table. Sharing tables was common in that cafe, which espoused a more Marxist, communal way of doing things. When I glanced up from my book to acknowledge the man, he started talking. Eventually he explained his philosophy of life and his solutions for what ailed the human race. One of his big ideas involved bananas.

He said, “Everyone’s so depressed and you know why?” (I did not.) “They don’t have enough potassium, man! If everyone ate bananas they’d get enough potassium and they wouldn’t be depressed. It’s all in the bananas!” This made me laugh and so we talked for a while, enjoying each other’s company, laughing at each other’s jokes. When he got up to leave, he paused and with genuine sweetness said, “I dig your mirth, man.” We shook hands, then he was gone and I never saw him again. But the memory of him and our brief but warm encounter still makes me smile and appreciate the connecting power of humor.

Sometimes humor can penetrate our discouragement when all else has failed. Ten years ago a friend of mine was admitted to an inpatient addiction rehab clinic. I sat with him for moral support while a staff counselor conducted the orientation interview. For my friend, entering rehab was a moment of real defeat—just barely better than going to jail.

The counselor asked, “Do you smoke cigarettes?” My friend looked at her with despair, as if this were the final indignity, and answered, “I’m trying to quit”—which made all three of us laugh out loud, considering where we were. I greatly appreciated his sense of humor and how it slightly but significantly mitigated his misery in this situation.

Mirth at its best is a shared experience that has power to reduce obstacles to intimacy. When I worked with incarcerated men, laughter was a great therapeutic tool that often eased them closer to each other, creating bonds and softening the hardened edges that men sometimes form around their deep sadness. As one inmate astutely observed, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry, but laughing makes crying feel better.”


A shared laugh is a great leveler, a way to feel human together, even a way to restore dignity. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Hungary during WWII who saved tens of thousands of Jews from extermination. After the war, he was arrested by his former Soviet allies and charged with espionage. He was presumably taken to Siberia, and no one heard from him again.

Information about Wallenberg in captivity is scant, but one prisoner who escaped a brutal Soviet labor camp described a brief but humorous encounter with the great man: One day as Wallenberg was being treated roughly by his captors he called out, “Taxi!” —much to the amusement of his fellow prisoners who, despite their privations, were heartened by his gutsy gallows humor.

A sense of humor in the face of suffering can be a saving grace that strengthens resilience and suggests a spark of hope. When we laugh we are fully present in the moment, if only briefly. The clarity of that present-ness is pleasing despite what other burdens we carry. As they say, laughter is good medicine, but it can also be good food, water, and oxygen.

While traveling in India, I lived for a time in a third floor apartment adjacent to a beautiful park. I immediately learned that a Hindu worship group gathered in the park beneath my window every morning at 7AM. What a drag. I was hoping I could sleep late most mornings. Their meetings lasted one hour and always ended with laughter yoga.

Laughter Yoga 2

Laughter yoga involves group members looking directly at each other and forcing laughter, in the belief that feigned laughter is as beneficial to the body and soul as spontaneous laughter. I noticed it didn’t take long for the fake laughter to become genuine, leaving the whole group cracking up for real. Sometimes I’d stand at the window and tell jokes at my normal volume and pretend to enjoy the hysterics of my “audience”. What might have been a noisy nuisance became a secretly shared mirth that helped me feel tenderness towards this group of devotees.

Mirth may be a higher order of humor, a deeper kind of delight. The poet William Blake said, “Too much fun is of all things most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth.” It is reasonable to me that a growing sense of mirth, rather than a growing cynicism, is a tremendous asset for a happy life. “Mirth is better than fun” is a strange sounding phrase to the modern ear, which distinguishes very little between the two. Contemporary life offers countless options for mirthless fun, empty entertainment, and banal diversions. Mirth, on the other hand, is uplifting and informative; it has meaningful content. It brings people together and leaves a person physically and emotionally healthier when concluded. Mirth is never sarcastic; it banishes the critical voice that brings toxic judgment to ourselves or to others.

A mirthful approach to life may be akin to meditation, attending fully to the present moment, the opposite of escapism. I wonder how much sooner we’d hear whispers of contentment in our souls if we intentionally cultivated a humorous or mirthful filter for the moments of our day that might otherwise be irritating or discouraging. Mirth enlarges our capacity to take on the poignant struggles of life. For these reasons and others, I dig mirth, too. And with all due respect to my long lost hippy friend, I’d say mirth is probably better than bananas.

Posted in Depression, freedom, happiness, India, Joy, meaningful life, Mirth, philosophy, recovery, Sense of Humor, sobriety, spirituality, substance abuse, Suffering, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The True Explorer

Group Portrait of  JourneyIt may seem trite to say life is a journey, but few metaphors are more apt for describing the human experience. Personal insight and awareness often have the same gradual, unfolding nature that mirrors the action of putting one foot in front of the other. Moment to moment we are keenly conscious about the desire to be somewhere else, to know what we don’t know, or to acquire something still outside our grasp. Far from being trite, understanding life as a journey is quite meaningful and useful for facing life’s difficulties. Humans respond to the call for a better life by moving from point A to point B, physically, mentally or spiritually.

The impulse to physically wander is inherited from our ancient vegetarian ancestors, and the need to settle down in a base, cave, den or tribal territory is characteristic of carnivores. So says the legendary explorer Bruce Chatwin in his intriguing collection of essays, The Anatomy of Restlessness. The omnivorous design of our teeth and the versatile structure of the human body hint at the acceptability of both lifestyles: roaming the land in search of sustenance or staying put in one place to construct agreeable ways to cook and eat. Even today for many, nothing says home like a great kitchen and dinner table.

So we have competing desires: the urge to travel, to move, to be curious, as well as the longing to nest and rest. The moment we answer the call to explore we’ve also sown seeds for the yearning for home. There’s beauty in that tension. To wander without a literal or figurative sense of home is to be lost, to be pushed without the stabilizing pull. The explorer may physically go in one direction, but psychologically he desires a round trip; to come back to his familiar self, but with something new added. There is a heroic departure from the norm and a return, hopefully with new gifts to offer, leading to a new and better normal.

Historically, Chatwin reports, the nomad doesn’t wander aimlessly, but follows known paths of migration; the geographic familiarity perhaps compensating for the absence of a fixed address.

You might say the nomad is uncivilized, if we accept Chatwin’s definition of civilized as “living in cities.” The true nomad or explorer is something of a disruptive influence on civil society. His path goes outside the boundaries, but his motives are constructive. His movement seeks provision or insight or economic gain, not escape.

BC-Herodotus-HistoriesChatwin cites Herodotus, himself an exile and a traveler with boundless curiosity. In The Histories Book IV we find a fascinating description of the advantages of nomadic life. Facing military aggression by the Persian King Darius, the nomadic Scythians went on the move. But what appeared as retreat to Darius was nothing of the sort. The Scythians merely acted in accord with their accustomed lifestyle. In frustration, Darius sent a message to the Scythian King: “Why do you always run away?” The Scythian King replied, “I have never fled for fear of any man, nor do I now flee from you. If you really want a fight, find the graves of our fathers and then you’ll see whether we’ll fight. As for your boast that you are my master, go and cry.” Soon enough Darius was the one retreating.

Nomadic traditions are highly spiritual; having gave rise to the great world religions. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed – all nomads. Chatwin, an agnostic, writes, “…no great transcendental faith has ever been born of an Age of Reason. Civilization is its own religion.” Chatwin proposes, however, that the estrangement of physical movement from spiritual growth in civilization contributes to a stagnation we seek to recapture in focused migrations. The Muslim Hajj and other pilgrimages endeavor to balance the loss of human movement inherent to civilization.

Chatwin came of age in the 1960s. In many ways he embodied the daring and progressive lifestyle that typified those times. But he was primarily a freethinking intellectual who didn’t hesitate to call out the posers among his contemporaries. Chatwin disdained the recreational drug use associated with that freethinking age, regarding it not as counter-cultural but as counterfeit and still bound by middle-class material values. This didn’t endear him to “the cool kids” of his time. He saw his own generation as profoundly ignorant of the worth of travel and exploration as purposeful activities, ways to test one’s imagination and develop skills, not as excuses for idleness and indulgence. But since humans must journey, it didn’t surprise him that people were susceptible to seeking inferior journeys of the chemical kind.

Chatwin disrupted his society and spurred his own growth by moving his body. He believed walking was best because, taking his cue from nature, the best thFeetings in life are accomplished slowly and deliberately. Writing in 1970 he said, “All our activities are linked to the idea of journeys… our brains have an information system giving us our orders for the road, and that here lie the mainsprings of our restlessness. At an early stage man found that he could spill out all this information in one go, by tampering with the chemistry of the brain. He could fly off on an illusory journey or an imaginary ascent…. but true wanderers rarely fell prey to this illusion. Drugs are for people who have forgotten how to walk.”

The horizon of the inner journey is where Chatwin ultimately set his sights. His concept of adventure had little to do with adrenaline-pumping risks or gawking at the exotic, though he did take risks and he did witness the exotic. His concept of adventure involved responding to restlessness without surrender to rootlessness. There was boldness and maybe even impulsivity to his adventures. He stepped outside of his known territory but not outside of his consciousness.

His first and perhaps best-known book, In Patagonia, came about because of a conversation with an elderly friend. The friend said, “I’m too old to go to Patagonia now. Please go for me!” Chatwin answered the call and left immediately, famously sending this succinct message of resignation to his employer: “Have gone to Patagonia.”

If life is a journey then to sojourn well we must be in it for the long term and be willing to go beyond known territory. There will be long stretches where nothing seems to be happening. The true explorer is patient and makes peace with the step-by-step nature of the process. I admire the abandon with which Bruce Chatwin accepted those facts.

Do you desire to be a lifelong learner? Think of learning as a long walk. Better yet, take a long walk and explore. You get to know things better when they go by slow.

Posted in Alcohol and drinking, freedom, happiness, meaningful life, Nomadic Life, philosophy, recovery, sobriety, spirituality, substance abuse, travel, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment