Friday, May 8, 2015
Thursday, December 18, 2014
I am wondering--in this cold, comforting winter evening--if we know how to be sad anymore. A strange question, that. Are we not a nation, a people, a world--in the grip of an epidemic of depressive disorders? Have we not stared into the face of existential angst and grinned, spat, screamed, and run away? Do we not have a severely over-taxed social services system trying and failing to deal with the sadness of millions and their consequent "coping" behaviors?
But I am not talking about clinical depression or philosophical anxiety. I am talking about being sad--sadness that is not floating free but is a direct and reasonable response to loss, disappointment, or wounding. This is a passion, among the many passions we flash all over social media, that seems shameful. We hide it; we sublimate it; and we joke about it. Thus, those "coping" behaviors are actually evidence that I am onto something.
I have no studies to cite nor even explanations to offer. I only notice that the Hebrew Bible saw fit to include a book of Lamentations, perhaps so that people had some words in which to address their sorrow to the Divine, amongst their fellow sorrowers. And we have Facebook. I see far more people joking about needing another drink, or a weapon, than I see people honestly saying, "I am sad." Speaking out of the ugly roots of my own experience, I fear that this is how we deal with sadness now. Perhaps we seek medication or therapy, or perhaps we medicate ourselves. Or perhaps we stuff it all down into the narrow little pressure cooker that is anger. The first solution can be appropriate, in certain contexts and for certain disorders. Sorrow, however, as a response to a reasonable cause, is no disorder. Yet even of this sorrow, I fear, we run away in fear.
Spinoza defined sadness as the passion by which the mind passes to a lesser perfection. When we are sad, he believed, we feel our power of acting decreased. This is undoubtedly true: to be sad is to feel weak and vulnerable, as if the hard shell of armor one has spent a lifetime building has been ripped away by violence. Here, perhaps, is an explanation of our fear. But if the armor can be ripped off--and this must be possible if one is to be human--then it was really illusory to begin with. Sadness therefore shows us something profound and true about ourselves, and about those other people we have been protecting ourselves against. Invulnerability in human life is a lie, and its sentimental accoutrements are more often than not cruel. In embracing sorrow, we embrace an emotion that the youngest children and oldest survivors share. Mass hiding of a feeling does not make it disappear. So, passing through sorrow--feeling its wounding, crippling attack--might actually increase our power of acting in the long run, insofar as it brings us closer to that most helpful of creatures--other human beings.
I take it this was part of Wilde's point. "Clergymen," he says, "and people who use phrases without wisdom, sometimes talk of suffering as a mystery. It is really a revelation. One discerns things that one never discerned before. One approaches the whole of history from a different standpoint. What one had felt dimly through instinct, about Art, is intellectually and emotionally realized with perfect clearness of vision and absolute intensity of apprehension."
Such apprehension is precious. Perhaps we ought to resist the urge to flee from it. It is not really so frightening. Sorrow has a natural lifespan. As Montaigne says, "evils have their life and limits, their sickness and their health." Should sorrow attempt to usurp the time of our whole lives, that is when to seek help of a different kind. But it is not in itself an illness, and it will not alone destroy us. It may be time to step out of costume, and let ourselves feel an emotion that wears no mask.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
In my experience, this quotation fits nearly everyone* who teaches at a church-related university, or preaches to a public, or posts about faith on Facebook, or blogs about it. I make no exception for myself.
Fellow teachers, preachers, posters, and bloggers, I would love to know what you think. If you're moved to post in the comments here, or on your own preferred forum, you will have my admiration—and I do not mean that ironically.
*There is a class whom the quotation does not describe. This is the cynical "pragmatist" who burns with no spiritual intensity at all. But he has learned that if he simulates such a person, playing a role, he can acquire power for himself by exploiting those who do feel the contradiction.
Friday, March 21, 2014
Saturday, October 26, 2013
We geeks love to track stuff, and put numbers on the stuff we track. We humans love to think about ourselves. So, it should be no surprise that human geeks have invented the "quantified self" movement, which promises to improve our health, our self-control, and our very lives, by making us aware of every aspect of what we are doing every moment of the day and night.
Its Conceit: "Because they failed to contemplate these infinities, men have rashly undertaken to probe into nature as if there were some proportion between themselves and her. Strangely enough they wanted to know the principles of things and go on from there to know everything, inspired by a presumption as infinite as their object. For there can be no doubt that such a plan could not be conceived without infinite presumption or a capacity as infinite as that of nature" (Fragment 199).
Again, we can learn much about ourselves through tracking our vital statistics, but we may become far more ignorant in a Socratic sense, as we proceed to convince ourselves that we know things that we cannot possibly know. There are apps, I understand, that actually presume to tell their users when they will die. Putting aside the misleading implication that medical science has evolved to a state at which it is able to predict life expectancy with such precision, fortune has a nasty way of giving the lie to these kinds of predictions. The healthiest of habits are tragically no match for drunk drivers, new diseases, or acts of violence.
Its Obvious Danger of Producing Anxiety: "Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical" (Fg 21).
Those who ignore reasoned medical advice, who never think about how their behavior affects their well-being, indeed play a silly roulette with their lives. But those who have experienced serious illness--or who have feared that they or a loved one might be experiencing such an illness--know all too well the danger of believing that information can cure. The relentless search for information, without experience or wisdom to help one process it, is a very bad healer. It is excellent, however, at exponentially increasing one's misery, as the pleasures life still has to offer fall victim to its imaginary, specter-like predictions, fears, and insistent drive to feed on itself; which brings us to . . .
Its Excellence at Diverting One from Life: "We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. . . . Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so" (Fg 47).
Once again, I am sure there are people involved with the quantified self movement who manage to track all their information, put it in a little box, and move on with their productive, well-adjusted, and optimized lives. But the details of what one can track are a little disturbing. Evidently, it is now possible to analyze your own excrement, electronically inform your computer when you are having sex, and moreover publicize this information online for the world to see. This is all, of course, evidence of our own brilliance--not only in inventing the devices that make such things possible, but in doubling and trebling our experiences into the moment, the record of the moment, and its faint, eternal, electronic trace. Unfortunately, we have not yet invented a device that allows us to do this without sloughing off the intensity of the original. This is a marvelous anesthetic if one does not wish to feel life very intensely, but the fulfillment of such a wish can only be a sadly mixed blessing.
One might well reply that Pascal himself was no happy character--that he was tortured, obsessive, and no model for the flourishing life. With this retort, I cannot disagree. But what does this mean? That he knew suffering profoundly, from the inside, and knew very well what did not cure it. To read Pascal in a time of despair is to lift the veil of isolation and destroy the infinity between one and none that Nietzsche found between having one friend and utter solitude. It is to know, in other words, that no human being must suffer alone, because at least one other has suffered from the very depths. This sort of consolation, so much worth seeking, cannot be quantified. We need not share all of Pascal's commitments to find in him this kind of friend, and to suspect that, particularly in his gentler moments, he had some insight to share.
Friday, October 4, 2013
[Neri] happened to be nearby when the pope was informed that a nun in the vicinity of Rome was attracting attention because of her many remarkable spiritual gifts. Neri was commissioned to investigate the validity of these tales. He immediately mounted his mule and, in spite of very bad weather and roads, soon arrived at the convent. On being admitted, he conversed with the abbess, who was thoroughly convinced of these tokens of grace, and gave him all the details about them. The nun was summoned and entered, but his only greeting was to extend his muddy boot to her, indicating that she should pull it off. The pure, holy virgin started back in horror, and with angry words expressed her resentment of this impudence. Neri rose quite calmly, climbed back on his mule, and returned to the pope much sooner than expected; for Catholic confessors have very precise, significant precautionary measures prescribed to them for the testing of such spiritual gifts. While the church concedes that such spiritual favors are possible, it does not admit their authenticity without the most punctilious examination. Neri briefly communicated the result to the astonished pope: “She is no saint,” he cried, “she performs no miracles! For she lacks the main attribute, humility.”
Naples, Saturday, May 26, 1787
(From Goethe’s Italian Journey, tr. Robert R. Heitner, ed. Thomas P. Saine and Jeffrey L. Sammons [Princeton University Press, 1989], pp. 259-260.)