Wednesday, December 29, 2010

All Freedom Has

Prototype of The Statue of Responsibility
"All freedom has a 'from what' and a 'to what.' The 'from what' of man's freedom is his being driven, and the 'to what' is his being responsible, his having a conscience."

- Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning

* * *
Too often we focus on the "from what" in describing freedom: freedom from tyranny - be it governmental or personal - freedom from servitude, from pain, from guilt, from anything that obstructs, thwarts or diminishes our lives, our sense of well-being, our sense of Self. And it is good and right to want to be free of such limitations. But the drive away from something necessarily includes the question - To what end? Is simply away enough, or musn't it also include a vision of what life will be like once that freedom is achieved?

For the fucked, we stay focused on the getting away, the freedom fight, the majesty of our suffering. We lack the imagination required of conscience, of acting in accordance with that first impulse to believe in freedom. Us fuckers lack the freedom of responsibility. We only know the fight. We don't know what to do when the fight is against ourselves. We devolve into arbitrariness - equating freedom with mere impulsiveness and instant gratification.

* * *

As I age my knees literally creak. What were once freckles are now liver spots and my back is a busted hinge. So it goes. But as I age so grows my sense of responsibility - not only to myself, my children, my friends, but to Life.  Perhaps it is a function of the aging process - the narcissism of youth a necessary step on the path; or perhaps, and I think more likely, this is simply how it worked out for me. No one has to wait to be responsible for their life. There is no certificate required to live one's life out loud. But it does require the ability to be awake and to recognize that most of what we think of as freedom is an excuse to behave badly, to show poorly, to get a pass on our obligations. The mere mention of the word obligation sends shudders down the spineless spines of fucked fuckers - "Hey man, I ain't obligated to no one. You feel me?"

And yet without obligations, without responsibility we can never be free.

Oxymoronic, I know.

But "to what" are we striving? The answer me and my liver spots have come up with have been spoken thousands of times in thousands of tongues and is hardly new. Aurelius called it logos. The same root can be found in Frankl's Logotherapy. Joseph Campbell described it as a communion with the elemental mystery of consciousness. Rumi referred to it as his beloved. My own shorthand calls it The River, but by any of these names it refers to a point beyond knowing, but is instead a discovery of one's own unique contributions to the ongoing pulse of Life. We are whole and discreet, utterly unique and at the same time we are part, a small part of a much vaster whole. We live in the immediate, and yet the extent to which we participate in the infinite is determined by our willingness and ability to be responsible for our thoughts, words, deeds.

If you are fucked you have abdicated that responsibility.

* * *

"Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness."

Be as free as you think you are. Until you are responsible, your freedom is a self-soothing lie, and is the reason you are fucked.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

There Is No

There is no end to the tasks and challenges life puts before you. No end until you end. If you believe that to unfuck your life is to live without those tasks and challenges then you are even more fucked than you know. What sort of life would that be anyway? What would occupy your time, your mind? How would you know who you were?

What possible purpose could there be to a life untasked, unchallenged by Life?

But I can hear your whining from here, "I've been challenged enough. Let someone else have a turn." "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen." And on and on ad nauseum.

Most of what troubles us is petty, vainglorious, the product of our fears. True and abiding trouble is rarer than our self-made woes and yet we treat all our trials as equals never realizing the differences between then, never sorting the wheat from the chaff, the shit from the shinola. We want to be rid of them all and refuse the necessary work of prioritizing, of discerning the differences between them, and by doing so we could unfuck ourselves by half. True trial always shames the small shit into oblivion.

* * *

In the medieval poem Parzival the story is told of a knight who joins Arthur's Court and goes on the Grail quest. He stumbles upon it, but fails to recognize it for what it is and so loses his one chance at it. He is cursed by the protectors of the Grail, yet he still does not know why. He spends the next several years alone, cut off from his wife, his home, still trying to find the Grail. Two great events happen that bring him back to the Grail. First, he meets a holy man who teaches him what the Grail was and Parzival begins to leave the world of Arthur's Court and its rules and propriety and instead moves into the world of the Grail. Yet he is still a knight and battles surround him. He slays many and toward the end of his search he meets his match - a Moor who is certain to kill him. Parzival's sword breaks and the Infidel refuses to kill him, finding no glory in such a victory. They sit together and learn they are half-brothers. Shortly thereafter Parzival finds the Grail, is made its protector and is reunited with his wife.

I mention this because it strikes me that all us fucked fuckers are like Parzival at the beginning of the story: clueless, strong, capable of great feats, but utterly lacking in insight, or self knowledge. Our lives take on the flavor of his wandering years - forever fighting and never getting any closer. Until we move out of the world of petty alliances and someone else's propriety and someone else's rules we are choked off from our complete self (see Spinoza, Proposition 15). But Parzival learns to separate shit from shinola when he abandons Arthur's world and enters the world of the Grail, meaning the spiritual rather than the economic world. But the task is not complete until he is. When sitting next to his half-brother, Feirefiz, he says, "I was against my own self."

If you are fucked it is because you are against your own self. You are fighting all the wrong battles assuming the flurry of activity somehow ennobles you. It doesn't. It fucks you. Life is forever questioning you, putting tasks and challenges in front of you. It wants to know if you are worthy of the Grail. If you were without these tasks you can be assured Life had its answer and found you wanting.

* * *

And there is this: once Parzival became the protector of the Grail his work had just begun.


Monday, December 6, 2010

The Best Revenge

The best revenge is to not be like that.

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.6

* * *

The conduct of one's life is all we've got; it is all we get to work with. How well or poorly we work with the material facts of our lives is determined by our willingness to live our lives in accordance with who we are. Become as others would have you be, become their caricature of who you are and you have fucked yourself, but good.

Integrity is one of those attributes that we all seem to acknowledge as a fine, fine thing, but are equally incapable of living out in three dimensions. So much effort. To know and not do is a dearth of integrity - is the product of a paltry and feeble imagination. You want to unfuck your life? Then live what you know.

But that begs the ontological questions: what do you know and how do you know it?

We, each of us, are jelly bags of potential. We, the living, get to move about in our time, in these bodies and engage Life as it rushes towards us. But we are marked men and women. Our time is finite and knowing this we have learned to live in fear, in doubt. We seek answers in holy books, in rituals, in what others say and believe and we, too, become believers. All belief systems are a type of religion - a code and way of organizing experience so that we can make some sense of our lives (this includes atheism, science, humanism, etc., not just the codified religions). As such, much of what we know is what others would have us believe. And there's the rub.

It brings on the habit of lazy acceptance, the habit of believing, whole hog, what others say about ourselves and our lives. It matters not what anyone may say or do. All that matters is what you say and do.

* * *

Almost 25 years ago I worked for a difficult and bombastic man, an art dealer whose outsized sense of self swallowed up all in his path. During my time with him one of his other employees tried to kill him by running him over with a truck. When you reach the point of madness because all that you know to be true has no place in the world, well, anything can happen.

But the driver of that truck got it wrong. He had accepted the conditions of his employment and its concomitant humiliations and degradations as the sum total of his life. Any man would want to break free of it. His error was believing what that sonofabitch had to say. When you cede authority over the conditions of your life to others, then you get results that benefit them and leave you sucking air like a fish on shore.

I hated working for that prick, but felt hemmed in by economics, by my lack of imagination. I had a job and that was enough. I quit after the attempt on his life. It was too easy to see myself behind the wheel.

* * *

We are told when we have been wronged by others that the best revenge is living well. As if revenge will do anything to free us from our failings. My former sister-in-law suggested the same to me, adding that my happiness would surely unglue her sister - an added bonus to my happiness.

But all such constructs are wrong on their face. To live for revenge is to remain tied to what you have allowed to limit you. The pain in your life is your responsibility - you are the one who accepted the terms and conditions, the humiliations and degradations of your circumstance. Living to crackback on those you blame for your circumstance keeps you on the same footing as them. You are no different from your tormentors.

The best revenge is to not be like that.

Quit accepting what others say you should or should not do. Quit accepting their judgments about the size of your house, or the depth of your checking account. Quit being subservient. You have a mind, don't you? Use it. Learn to filter out all the white noise. The only things you can control are your thoughts and actions. Do so. Allowing others to dictate who you are puts you behind the wheel going 50 mph to your doom.

You can do better than that. You must do better than that.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

We Are Made

We are made of story only. We are narratives projected backwards and forwards through time (the length of our lives, the length of our memories, the length of collected, collective memories held in books, records, all media). Our projected stories overlap, resonate or are dissonant with other stories and we form our various identities based on these agreements, disagreements and mis-understandings both benign and cruel.

So what story do you tell? What sort of story are you? To be fucked is to not know your own story and/or to take no responsibility for the telling of your story. It is the difference between an active or passive voice, i.e., "Would you care to meet me for drinks?" vs. "Meet me for drinks."

* * *

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious devoted mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

Above all - we were wet.

- Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes

* * *

As the authors of our lives, even if you are having your's ghost written, we are all unreliable narrators. But we are all we've got so we accept the limits of our memories and color in those parts we've forgotten (on purpose? who can tell?) with such detail as to hold our larger narrative together. I have told, written, re-told and re-written of my experiences with Fr. Damien at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane dozens of times and each time I know the details shift, the language I use is modified by time and purpose, but always I believe I am telling the truth. Perhaps not facts, but truth(s). And my comfort with the variances, the changes large and small in the language, in my re-telling becomes part of the story as well.

* * *

It is like a bottomless well. Does all this looking down make you dizzy? It does me. So let's light a scrap of paper, and drop it down into that well. It will fall slowly, deeper and deeper. And as it drops it will light up the sides of the well. Can you see it? It's going down and down. Now it's so far down it's like a tiny star in the dark depths. It's getting smaller and smaller...and now it's gone. Our memory is like that burning scrap of paper.

- EH Gombrich, A Little History of the World

* * *

Jung wrote that his life's story was of the self-realization of the unconscious (his, and I suppose, the collective as well). That bit of light from the burning scrap of paper floating down the well of our personal history only casts a pinprick of light - the rest is unformed darkness. To be alive, to engage the tasks and purposes that life continually puts in front of you is to bring light and form to that darkness - to determine the exact shape of your life, your story. It is the story of Jung's self-realization. Given that we are narrative creatures it is more than permissible to create fictions about your life; it is, in fact, required.

Not lies, but fictions. My re-telling of Fr. Damien hearing my confession, talking to me under the Ginko tree all happened and are all true. When I write it out it cannot help but become a fiction, for the reportage of experience does not replace experience. What was true happened. What I write about is a useful and necessary fiction.

If you are fucked you either obsess over "fact" or simply allow others to define your life. If there is going to be a story told anyway, why don't you tell it yourself?

* * *

In John 1:1 it says, "In the beginning was the Word..." To Christians that "word" is Christ, but strip out the religion. The word in Greek is "logos." Viktor Frankl uses this term as the basis of his Logotherapy, or meaning-based therapy. Your word, your logos, is the story of your life - fucked or not. Remember Gombrich's burning scrap of paper? John 1:5 reads: "And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

That is how you unfuck your life, my friend: confound the darkness with your light.

Tell your story, or it will be told for you.