Thursday, April 4, 2013

Journal of a Soul 12

Self on Caulonia Beach, this Easter season!!
Many years ago when I was a first year student at college I remember reading several of Saul Bellow’s novels.  The one that sticks out in my memory is Henderson The Rain King.  The protagonist, Henderson, is middle aged and somewhat confused as to his identity.  Not alone is he confused about his selfhood, but he simply does not know what he wants from life at all.  Then, throughout the novel we meet with his often repeated chorus: “I want.  I want!”  I think many of us modern and postmodern humans could sing the same chorus as we, too, simply don’t know what we want.  At base, what we want is some direction in our lives, some meaning.  Then the inevitable questions arise:”Who will give us this direction?  Where does that elusive meaning lie?”  These questions are not surprising at all – for, as the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustave Jung puts it, the second half of any person’s life is always about the search for meaning.  After all, the first half is necessarily about getting qualifications, marrying, rearing a family and then, and then and then etc.  And then, what?

As I type these reflections I am sitting in Calabria, South Italy, awaiting my return home to Ireland tomorrow.  Life is also about that, too, waiting. The American poet and critic, Randal Jarrell wrote a famous poem about waiting in line while he was a soldier in Korea, if I remember correctly.  He saw waiting as one of the key conditions of modern humankind, not alone that of the lonely GI.  If you have ever lived in Italy you will know that things work very, very, very slowly indeed here.  Everything is literally drowned or drowning in paperwork at all times.  So much so that any non-native is liable to wonder how anything gets done at all in this wonderfully eccentric and endearing country. However, things do gradually and eventually get done. And then, one will say, albeit much time later - It was all worth the wait!!

And Waiting, then, can be good for the soul.  Let's contemplate that so...

We Westerners don’t like to wait.  We live in a fast world.   It is decades since Alvin Toffler spoke so learnedly about the acceleration of change, never mind the speed of it.  His classic book, in which he proposed this thesis, was called Future Shock.   We want fast food, instant results, instant contact with others, instant service and so on.  As a teacher I find that the concentration of young people today is getting ever and ever poorer.  It is a very hard task to keep the attention of modern teenagers as they are used to instant gratification and stimulation from the virtual world of computer games.  A class dealing with a poem or a period in history can never really be that interesting or gripping no matter how hard the teacher tries to use modern technology to enliven his/her presentation. All knowledge, like wisdom, has to be earned through the blood, sweat and tears of study.  Sure, we can use technology to enhance our presentation of data and even our learning of it, but much spade work still needs to be done by the learner. 

As this is a journal about the soul, I wish to highlight the importance of patience, the learning to sit with the situation we find ourselves in.  Okay, so I cannot get X, Y or Z object now, or resolve A, B or C situation immediately, or earn D, E or F amounts of money!  So what?  Does it make an appreciable difference to me now at this moment? Obviously, I’m mostly talking about people in Henderson’s or Jarrell’s existential situation, not someone dying of starvation or otherwise in extremis.

If I meditate on my situation in a spiritual or soul-building sense I might ponder the following:

What is happiness for me and my loved ones?

Is the price – in terms of health, mental and physical - worth paying for what I/we earn?

Are our children really happy?

Is my job worth it in terms of the human price I’m paying?

Am I really flourishing?  Incidentally “flourishing” or “eudaimonia” was the word Aristotle used for happiness.  In other words, he did not equate happiness with any fleeting feeling.  It was, rather, a sense of flourishing, or of living life to the full in a more wholesome and holistic sense.

As I sit and wait with the realisation of all the things I cannot have now, immediately, this minute, what is at the base of my desire for them?  Is it simply my own delusions?  Do I need to tackle my own self-deceptions?  One step is surely to attempt to become aware of them in the first palce!

Am I really happy in my own skin?  Can I really live with myself?  Do I sleep easily?

As I sit here and meditate on the rhythm of my breath, can I not simply learn to be, to exist, to let the “real” me surface gently?

As I sit here, can I not gently learn to accept myself as I am, to be more patient with my “self” and with significant others in my life?

As I sit here, can I not let my breathing work in unison with the very planet on which I am a miniscule creature?

As I sit here, can I not stop repeating Henderson’s mantra, “I want, I want!”and replace it simply with “I am, I am”  Say it over and over.  Surely Being is more important than Having as Erich Fromm used to emphasise so perspicaciously?  Surely Being beats Wanting any day?

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