The futility of the darkened glass

darklyOne of my favorite thoughts from the Bible is that we “see through a glass darkly” in our human experiences. Now, you can find all sorts of meanings about this depending on which version of theology you embrace, what church you attend, or whose commentary you choose to read, but to me, it identifies the absurdity of trying to control one’s life.

In order to have control, one must know at least the immediate future, so as to avoid tripping along the path from here to there. However, this simple teaching – that we’re unable to see ourselves or our lives as life sees us – reveals the vanity of our efforts. What we want is some cosmic flashlight that will cut through the darkness and light the way, but that is the textbook chasing of one’s tail.

We’re happy to trust God and His promises, as long as He lets us in on the plan. We beg for guidance when, as Brennan Manning used to say, what we really need is trust. “Give us a roadmap,” we plead, “so that we can plan accordingly.” We have control over so very little in life, but it’s never enough. We don’t want to get whacked downstream, so we hope for knowledge of when to duck. This path is fraught with problems and danger, yet we pursue it until the very end.

The result, as Blaise Pascal wrote, is that we never really live. The best we can do is hope to live, and so, like a butterfly we chase across life’s flower beds, happiness eludes us. It’s only available in the here and now anyway, but we’re all worried about what’s next. This is the life trap that addicts know so well, but it is by no means limited only to those who suffer this terrible affliction. I thank God for the knowledge gained through recovery that I am a spiritual being on a human journey, not the other way around. This has opened the door to the study and practice of being a better human than trying to be more spiritual, for in this reality, there is nothing I can do as a human to “be” more spiritual. The quest of recovery is not to quit the object or event to which we are addicted but rather to learn how to live without it. It begins and ends with learning to “live life on life’s terms” and not our own. Most people don’t know that the author of our AA literature, Bill Wilson, added a fourth line to the serenity prayer, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” “Thy” has always meant “Life” with a capital L, which is another term I use for God.

This constant staring at the darkened glass is a human insecurity born of our insistent demand for our own perfection. We’re on a quest to be spotless, even though we know it’s an unachievable goal. We need be perfect, because we can’t stand the way we feel about ourselves or our lot in life, and if we can’t actually BE better, we can at least LOOK better. We live a life of “what ifs,” and we just know that it would somehow be better, if we could just perform at a higher level. We gauge our internal feelings by what we see in others, unaware that they, too, are just as imperfect as we are.

These are the challenges of what C.S. Lewis wrote about when he compared humans to amphibians, able to exist in two differing realms simultaneously. We humans tend to think in linear terms and live within our senses, which is why we feel comfortable with an anthropomorphized God sitting on a metaphorical throne. But we also live in the spiritual dimension, where this “dark glass” doesn’t exist, because there is no yesterday or tomorrow in the spiritual realm. The spirit exists in an eternal here and now. Time and distance are created dimensions, linear concepts that trap us in a world we can’t control, and yet we insist we must. The pursuit of happiness is, after all, a self-evident human right, right?

Like much of life, however, this is a paradox, for happiness depends on what’s happening, whereas the state of being happy, joyous, and free is one that doesn’t depend on external circumstances whatsoever. This is the place of human contentment, a safe zone to which we can retreat 24/7 to find rest and safety. Notice how David prays for this in Psalms 43:

O send out Thy light and Thy truth
And let them lead me.
Let them bring me unto Thy holy hill and to Thy tabernacle.
Then will I go unto the alter of God,
Unto God, my exceeding joy.
Yea, with harp will I praise Thee, O God, my God.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul?
Why art thou disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
Who is the health of my countenance and my God.

This isn’t some great mystery. It’s David retreating to his place of safety, away from the things that trouble his soul, and into the arms of God’s perfect grace and peace. The concept is so simple that it confounds the very human souls for which it is intended and why David felt it necessary to remind himself through this Psalm.

And I hope that by sharing this today, I’ve reminded you, too. The darkened glass can never satisfy.

The devil and the ego

Courtesy Slideshare.net

Courtesy Slideshare.net

We talk a lot about ego in AA, for the ego is the real enemy of any addict. Alcohol is but a symptom of our disease, the book says. The real problem with alcoholism is the “ism,” which stands for “I, self, me.” I’ve heard many people refer to their minds as “a dangerous place, because I’m not alone in there.” In fact, learning to separate those voices and identify especially the voice of your ego is one of the most valuable tools in addiction treatment and in psychology itself.

It comes as a surprise to most that our thoughts are provided by different characters in our minds. After all, our experience often is that there’s really only one “voice” in our heads, but in actuality, there are – or at least can be – many. Separating them and understanding each’s purpose is a lifetime study, but it’s remarkably rewarding, for the ability to shut down negative thoughts becomes a simple practice of ignoring that particular voice. I’m often reminded of the biography of mathematical genius John Nash by Sylvia Nasar “A Beautiful Mind.” Nash suffered from schizophrenia and was able to help himself by isolating those voices and ultimately ignoring them. Nash may have been an extreme case, but the point of those voices is very useful on the path to self actualization.

Freud was the first to identify the ego as “the part of the psyche that experiences the outside world and reacts.” The psychological world has gone far past that simple understanding. In the mid-twentieth century, psychiatrist Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA) introduced the concept of “ego states,” and the work of Don Carter has taken that even further. Carter’s “Thawing” book series helped me in my own self study. Dr. Berne’s TA work was influenced by a seminal thought of Freud’s, that the human personality is multi-faceted.

These works all influenced me, but none moreso than The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior, the 1988 book by Craig Nakken. Nakken’s little book (120 pages) is packed with original thinking and states that the personality of addicts is also multi-faceted: The Self and The Addict. The Addict very closely resembles The Little Professor ego state, but Nakken paints a remarkable picture of an inner war between The Self and The Addict. Suicide, he writes, is a defensive act of homicide wherein The Self finally kills The Addict. This is a remarkably accurate portrayal of what takes place inside the active mind of one so lost in the sea of conflicting inner thoughts that she can’t distinguish between right and wrong.

C.S. Lewis viewed the mind as multi-faceted in his remarkable “The Screwtape Letters” that described the efforts of an experienced demon attempting to teach a youngster how to best influence his “client” to turn away from thoughts of God. It’s the same internal struggle described by Nakken.

In my view, these kinds of conflicts are evident throughout history and literature, although the writers didn’t necessarily speak in this language. This goes all the way back to the Bible, which is a book about “regular” human beings and how they responded to inner voices often falsely depicted as external. There’s nothing sinister about it. It’s simply human beings attributing a “holy” sacredness to these stories that is not justified by the stories themselves. The booming voice of God shouting from the sky – like a hovering aircraft with a megaphone – is more wonderful and fits the story better than some guy who’s “only” touched the internal voice of the Creator.

Was David’s lust for Bathsheba a thought from his Self or his Ego?

Then there’s the story of Jesus in the wilderness. The story goes that “the devil appeared unto Him” and tempted him three times. Rather than assign this to some creature with red skin and a pitchfork that just happens to show up, let’s put on our inner voice glasses and take a different look at what it means to have the devil “appear unto” Jesus. Think. Here’s this fully human person whose been fasting for many weeks. He’s starving, so he says to himself, “You know, self, you could change that rock into bread and satisfy that hunger, right?” Jesus, however, recognizes that voice and quotes scripture to it.

This is exactly what psychology is trying to pin down here in the twenty-first century. We go about our lives with multi-faceted personalities, every single one of us. Nobody’s unique. We’re all just garden variety human beings with clay feet. Nobody’s perfect. If the fall of humankind was about anything, it was about the addition of this other voice into our heads and the bad behavior it brought with it. Annual sacrifices atoned for the behavior of the Jews, but what did the Christ accomplish, if not the promise of a life with authority over that voice? It doesn’t happen automatically when somebody “accepts Jesus.” The work has already been done, and knowledge of that authority is just the beginning anyway.

The religions of the book have distorted this by emphasizing the behavior (a.k.a. “sin”) instead of the cause. Bob Newhart did a wonderful take on this with his “Stop it” therapy sketch, but as any addict will tell you, emphasizing behavior does little to bring about the psychic change of recovery. That requires work, effort that I think actually belongs to the church in our postmodern world, because the solution, it turns out, is a spiritual one. We need to be talking about how we overcame those voices, sharing our stories with each other rather than preaching from some hierarchical platform that exists primarily for itself. The brilliant Clay Shirky noted a few years ago that the role of institutions is to preserve the problem for which they are the solution, but that is becoming increasingly apparent to those who’ve relied on the institutions of modernity to support the pursuit of happiness, including the church. It’s not working anymore, and to those who can reinvent themselves will go the prize of relevancy in the centuries to come.

As the incomparable Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine Jones used to say, “The devil made me do it.” There’s a deep truth to that but one that the institutional Christian church is unable to see.

License they mean when they cry liberty

John Milton, courtesy Wikipedia

John Milton

It’s raining here in Dallas this morning, and pensive is my mood. I’m locked in thoughts ranging from my age to political assassinations to the future that awaits my children. The title of this post is a famous line from the 17th Century John Milton (Paradise Lost) poem, I Did but Prompt. It’s one of the most fascinating, pre-American statements, and it says a lot about human nature. “License they mean when they cry liberty” has been with me for decades, and it never fails to influence my thinking when I hear people spouting about that most important American word “liberty.”

Milton’s poem is about the uselessness of preaching the truth of freedom to a class of people who are, frankly, uninterested, because it will impact their place in life. “…all this waste of wealth,” he writes, “and loss of blood.” He refers to the Biblical wisdom of not “casting your pearls before swine,” an admonishment not to waste your time with people who refuse to listen, people whose own contempt for truth leads them astray.

And yet, as Milton suggests, these people are often loudly proclaiming their belief in liberty, often defending it with war and violence. Milton, however, sees through this and proclaims that what they’re really defending is “license,” a much different concept than that of liberty.

“For who loves that (liberty),” he notes, “must first be wise and good.”

I think this is being played out before us today in nearly every corner of our culture. Nobody wants the truth inherent in liberty, because liberty requires responsibility. We want license, the “freedom” to do what we want at all times. Milton wisely notes that there’s a HUGE difference between the two, and I think we need to talk about this.

The First Amendment, for example, is a requisite cornerstone of liberty, because the courage to tell the truth must be protected. However, when it’s used to protect license, it’s polluted and turned on its head, and that’s a problem. I think the Founding Fathers knew that liberty demands sacrifice (Milton’s view), but we don’t hear much about that today. The emphasis on truth is the differentiator, which is why I am obligated to support everything about WikiLeaks and at the same time curse the political discourse of today, like that which played at least some role in the murderous atrocity in Tucson yesterday. The former seeks truth, but the latter seeks self gain.

License they mean when they cry liberty.

Our soul needs our attention

WoodstockI’m awash in emotion this Saturday morning. Weekends allow me the chance to drift, to let my mind wander the paths that it chooses instead of those I force upon it during the week. The Web is a great gift to mind wanderers, because its unstructured paths can (if you’ll let it) produce a sort of mind fuck serendipity that enables this wandering. I’m aware of a deep sense of soul this morning, and I want to write.

I began today with a YouTube video of an old Kurt Vonnegut speech to college graduates in Albion, Michigan. This came via Mediagazer, via kottke.org.

Vonnegut’s statements about how the arts grow your soul is what got me going. His view was that trying to make a living through the arts is the wrong way to view creativity — that it, instead, was the path to growing your soul, something about which he was extremely passionate. I profoundly believe this, and it’s a big part of what shapes my views of copyright and how badly we’ve mucked things up in that arena. The “copyright industry” sticks its bony fingers through the soul of creativity by turning it into a business. Shame on us.

As a writer, I believe that creative endeavors such as the arts should reward those who bring things to life from nothing, but I am strongly opposed to treating copyright as property law. Nobody owns creativity. It all comes from one source, and that belongs to everybody. I’ve written about this many times (here).

The soul. If you believe numerology, mine is an old one. Sometimes I think so; other times, I think it’s a child. I’m not sure when I first became aware of my soul, but I think it happened when I was very young. Soul awareness produces a kind of give-a-shit attitude about the usual trappings of life, and that’s always been my curse. The soul taps into the Lifestream of all things, because, as C.S. Lewis was fond of saying, “humans are like amphibians — living in two worlds at the same time.” The soul is where those two worlds meet and play in a never-ending here and now.

I call these two worlds life (small L) and Life (capital L). The only place they meet is in the here and now, and that reminds me of Blaise Pascal’s wonderful thought from The Penses:

Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present, and when we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future…So we never live, but we hope to live, and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.

Trust me: if you can find the here and now, you’ll never want to leave. Finding it, however, isn’t easy. Regret, shame and resentments bond us to yesterday, while fear and anxiety keep us in tomorrow.

My mind then took me to Woodstock, more specifically Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s song (video below) about the event and the particularly haunting line that “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

That is our quest, humankind’s ultimate quest, and it separates those more interested in Life than life. The baby boom generation seemed to grasp the capital L, which was a major threat to those who made a good living with small L life. I mean, who needs to get back to the garden, when this life produces a gardenesque living anyway?

But it’s an illusion. Small L life isn’t “real,” or perhaps I should say it doesn’t matter. What is the end of small L life anyway? As Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sang, “Mother Earth will swallow you.” If you believe small L is all there is, then I feel sorry for you. On this issue, I side, again, with Blaise Pascal.

Ah, the soul? Nobody knows for sure, but I think the soul lives on somehow, some way, and perhaps that’s why Vonnegut’s words are so meaningful this morning. He advised everyone in that audience to go out, write a poem, show it to no one, and then tear it into pieces and scatter it. That simple act, he noted, would grow your soul, and, oh my, what that would do.

I think nations have souls in a way, too, and that ours is currently very sick. We’ve spent far too much energy at the feeding trough of mammon and not nearly enough time of late growing that soul. As Dylan wrote, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody,” and a day of reckoning awaits all of us. You want to know the solution for everything that ails America? Our soul is sick and needs attention. We need to create again and again and again.

So thanks for coming along on my journey this morning. Do yourself a favor and create something today. Perhaps if we all do that together, we’ll somehow find our way back to the garden.

And that would be pretty cool.

Knowledge in your hand

The Ugly DucklingAs is her nightly ritual, my wife was deep into a puzzle magazine as we sat in bed last night watching TV. “Who wrote ‘The Ugly Duckling?'” she asked. The answer eluded me, so I grabbed my smartphone from the nightstand, punched in “the ugly duckling” in Google, and the search result gave me “Hans Christian Andersen.” This took all of three minutes.

Not being the kind to ever take things for granted, I commented about the marvel that is technology. Knowledge at our fingertips is something the current generation will take for granted. It is the “Second Gutenberg Moment” of which I write. When Gutenberg had the audacity to print a Bible as his first book, it gutted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and, combined with Wycliffe’s common language translation, scattered formerly protected knowledge across the land. The current Gutenberg moment is doing the same thing.

The knowledge of the world is already in the palm of your hand, and it will only get easier to access. The question is what will we do with it?

It’s thoughts like these that lead me to shudder at attempts to halt this in the name of selfish profit. We MUST keep the Net open for everybody. We MUST protect the horizontal connectivity that we’re enjoying today. We MUST advance a new economy based on that which is new, not that which is old, regardless of who or what it hurts, myself included.

We are in the most remarkable of times in human history, a time of incredible potential for humanity. Only we humans could muck it up, and I pray that we just leave it alone.

The culture war heats up

history is filled with culture warsWhen I first began writing this blog, I had just come out of a serious period of studying people and culture. I’m not sure if I have “eyes to see” or whether I’m nutty as a fruitcake, but the rising postmodern, post-colonial, post-Christian culture is very clear to me. This blog is called “The Pomo Blog” for a reason, and while some observers mistakenly think I’m into philosophical postmodernism, I’m really more a pragmatist who writes about culture and how it is changing. Just as the culture shifted after the invention of movable type from one that was faith-based to one planted in logic and reason, so now is our modern culture shifting to one that is vastly more participatory.

This, of course, troubles the status quo, which is firmly rooted in the modern culture it created and maintains, and one guy who is afraid more than most is Andrew Keen. His paranoid message makes for good copy, although it’s based more in fear than fact. In a recent panel discussion (he’s the natural counterpoint to the optimism of the Web) at the National Press Club, Keen pointed out that the Web is a threat to democracy. I’ve deconstructed Keen in the past and have no wish to do so again, because most of what he says is pretty obvious, although he speaks from the culture that is being disrupted. Here are a few thoughts from Keen as published by Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:

The premise of democracy is not about the people deciding; it’s about finding educated, high-quality political figures who will make wise decisions about the community…

One of the mistakes we make about the Internet is that it’s technology. It isn’t; it’s ideology. The Internet was built by people who questioned authority. The Internet is bound up in a fundamental assault on the notion of expertise…

What I most fear about the Internet… is the way we take this technology, which has no center, is flattened, has done away with authority and expertise — we take this technology to prove the ideological, idealized theories of (Wikipedia’s) Jimmy Wales. The truth is, we need expertise, we need authority, we need to remind ourselves of the foundations of representative democracy…

The core question, in my mind, about democracy is whether the Internet culture, this highly democratized media where everyone becomes an author, where we do away with the old structures of power, where we undermine the 20th century meritocracy and we replace it with this 21st century — what I would call, perhaps mob rule, and what you could call democracy — whether that would actually lend itself to the production of a better-informed citizen.

The fear is palpable. Andrew Keen speaks on behalf of the modernist culture in the way the high priests in Rome spoke on behalf of the culture of its day when Gutenberg came along and had the temerity to publish a Bible without their blessing. The same kinds of doom and gloom messages followed, until the new culture was fully in place. So, like Clay Shirky, I think we should be looking at the decades that followed the printing press for clues as to what comes next for us, for surely the ideological Web is moving us into a whole new culture in the West. It wasn’t pretty then, and it won’t be pretty now, but here’s the thing that Keen and many, many fearful others don’t get. Modernism has failed. Utterly. Oh it has given us many fine inventions, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen; our economy is a zombie (as Umair Haque so brilliantly puts it); and crisis after crisis challenge logic’s ability to find any real “fixes. The mental state of the culture is in shambles, with the priesthood of mental health claiming disorder upon disorder and the pharmaceutical industry waiting to help. Take an honest look around, folks. Can you honestly state that things are just fine and that the culture is worth preserving?

Haque, meanwhile, has written a “betterness manifesto” that surely makes the modernists cringe, because, well, it’s so touchy-feely, the stuff logic and reason are completely incapable of grasping. Surely chaos is at the door. But is it really?

In OMMA Magazine this month, John Capone writes of a culture clash between Apple and Google, and I think he nails perfectly that Steve Jobs represents the top-down, command-and-control order of modernism while Google represents the participatory core of postmodernism. It’s a great read, but what he writes about Google interests me most:

The public face of the company is nearly socialistic. For instance, it’s almost impossible to tell from titles alone, except at all but the highest levels, what the internal hierarchy of the company is. Googlers beat the open source drum with a consistency that can be numbing. When asked for comment on the mobile strategies of the two companies a Google rep said only, “We believe that open is the only way for the Web to have the broadest impact for the most people. We’re technology optimists who trust that open benefits everyone, and we will fight to promote it every chance we get.”

I think Capone is speaking of the broader culture in describing what both Apple and Google represent, so I expect to see attacks on Google to accelerate as the status quo figures out that any company that encourages the revolution is not its friend. This is a culture war worth watching, which I’ll admit is hard to do when you’re smack dab in the middle of it.

Are we going to experience pain in the process. Yes, I think, and a lot. My feet are firmly planted on the side of the participatory culture, however, because I want a better future for my children and especially theirs.

The problematic part of modernism — better yet, colonialism — is that it requires an ignorant mass that can be manipulated for the gain of the elite. Where that ignorance is overcome, the top finds an unwilling bottom, and that’s why every institution of the modern culture is or will be shortly under attack from beneath.

It simply cannot end well for the status quo, regardless of the number of lawyers who speak on its behalf.

http://www.niemanlab.org/2010/05/andrew-keen-on-why-the-internet-is-ideology/