Saturday, September 6, 2014

Journal of a Soul 64

Of Torment

Sand on Donabate Beach
Humans beings are complex creatures.  All our sciences - both natural and human - have attempted to plumb both our depths and our heights.  From depth psychology, person-centered counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy and existential psychotherapy on the one hand to biochemistry, neuroscience and psycho-pharmacology on the other we seek to map both the landscape and the mindscape of what it means to be human.  Whether we have achieved much or not in that task, I suppose is for the scholars in those various areas of specialty to delineate and their clients or patients to give either oral or written testimony as to the efficacy of the various approaches.  Be that as it may, some of our number do remain tormented souls.

A Brief History of Torment 

By torment I mean the proclivity within a certain number of us to mentally torture ourselves.  The history of self-inflicted torment is as old as humanity itself.  I remember when I was studying Scripture many years ago one of our more erudite lecturers introduced us to the ancient Egyptian poem known in English as The Man Who Was Tired of Life or The Dialogue of a Man and His Ba (or Soul). This composition is universally regarded as one of the masterpieces of ancient Egyptian literature. It is also one of the most difficult and continually debated, as well as being the subject of more than one hundred books and articles.  It is the author's mental anguish or torment that intrigues this writer here - one could say, to use a definite anachronism, that this early poem is pure existentialism. This poem dates back to the Twelfth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, a period that spanned from 1991-1803 BCE.  In the text the man accuses his soul of wanting to desert him, of dragging him towards death before his time. He says that life is too heavy for him to bear, that his heart would come to rest in the West (i.e. the afterlife), that his name would survive and his body would be protected. He urges his soul to be patient and wait for a son to be born to make the offerings the deceased needed in the afterlife. His ba describes the sadness death brings and retorts to the man's complaints about his lack of worth, his being cut off from humanity and the attractiveness of death by exhorting him to embrace life and promises to stay with him. Scholars have disputed as to whether the author is intending to take his own life or not.  One way or another the author of the piece is a highly tormented being and one full of angst to use yet another anachronistic term associated with existentialism. Here is a brief snatch from this rather pessimistic and angst-ridden poem:

To whom can I speak today?
Hearts are rapacious

And everyone takes his neighbour's goods.   [To whom can I speak today?]
Gentleness has perished
And the violent man has come down on everyone.
To whom can I speak today?
Men are contented with evil
And goodness is neglected everywhere.

To whom can I speak today? (see HERE)

Moonlight over Donabate strand this evening
There are other ancient documents, too.  For example, the earliest is the Sumerian text  A Man and His God, dating from 2000 - 1700 BCE describes the unjust and innocent sufferings of a righteous man. An Akkadian text called Ludlul Bel Nemeqi (I will praise the Lord of Wisdom), dating from 1000 BC, describes a nobleman praising the Babylonian god Marduk. This god had healed the stricken nobleman on account of his religious and cultic piety. Yet another ancient text is the Babylonian Theodicy which was composed between 1400 and 800 BCE. It consists of a dialogue between a sufferer and a comforter that seeks to explain why an innocent and good-living man should suffer. All these ancient compositions thematically resonate with the book of Job and demonstrate that the themes of theodicy were important pieces of the theological discourse in the ancient Near East. 

Of the Book of Job the WIKI records that it is:
one of the Writings (Ketuvim) of the Hebrew Bible, and the first poetical book in the Christian Old Testament.[1] Addressing the theme of God's justice in the face of human suffering - or more simply, "Why do the righteous suffer?"[2] - it is a rich theological work, setting out a variety of perspectives.[3] It has been widely and often extravagantly praised for its literary qualities - "The greatest poem of ancient and modern times," according to Tennyson,[4] and the only book of the Bible on one list of "The 100 Best Books of All Time". (HERE)
Job simply cannot understand why he is seemingly being punished by God as quite obviously he has been a righteous and good-living man all his life.  The ancient theology is quite rightly debunked by Job, that is, the traditional theology that argued that retribution always followed an evil man's deeds and that the good and righteous always prospered. That's why he gets so upset with his so-called comforters who argue that he must have done something wrong to merit God's retribution.  However, Job will have none of their arguments.  For him, the questions of God's justice and of human suffering are far more complex than traditional  theological thought was able to comprehend.  I shan't rehearse any of Job's arguments and protestations here save to illustrate how tormented a soul Job was. Very early in Chapter 3 he laments the fact that he was even born at all:

“Why is light given to him who is in misery,
    and life to the bitter in soul,
21 who long for death, but it comes not,
    and dig for it more than for hidden treasures,
22 who rejoice exceedingly
    and are glad when they find the grave?
23 Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden,
    whom God has hedged in?
24 For my sighing comes instead of[a] my bread,
    and my groanings are poured out like water.
25 For the thing that I fear comes upon me,
    and what I dread befalls me.
26 I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
    I have no rest, but trouble comes.” (Job 3: 20-26) ESV

There are many other quotations from the Book of Job that illustrate all too vividly his tormented state of mind, but quoting more of them would be redundant to my argumentation here.  I merely wish to comment on the angst or torment dimension of his mind. Let me place a quotation here from the father of Existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, a quotation I'm sure I have used here on too many occasions:
I stick my finger into existence – it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it that has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?” 
One can note the same existential angst and torment in all these quotations, both ancient and more modern.  One might also mention here another tortured literary soul, viz., Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) As I noted some years ago in a previous blog (Dostoyevsky):  The first book I read by Dostoyevsky was Notes From Underground.  This book was written in 1864 and  is a short novel that is quite easily read.   It is considered by many to be the world's first existentialist novel. It presents itself as an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator (generally referred to by critics as "The Underground Man") who is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg.  I was transfixed by this nameless character's alienation as a young nineteen year old student.  The "Underground Man's" life is quite dry and meaningless and without purpose and he seems to delight in pain and suffering which alone seem to keep him conscious of actually being alive.  He describes war early on in this small novel as being people's rebellion against the assumption that everything needs to happen for a purpose, because humans do things without purpose, and this is what determines human history.  Hence, life is wearisome, tedious, frustrating and tormenting.  Here, our anonymous antihero tells us that “I swear to you gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.” Consciousness itself is the problem.  The fact that suffering exists is a given but the fact that I am aware or conscious of it just adds to my human burden.  Our man is a highly educated and sophisticated human being who is deeply disillusioned and he savages both the lofty romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the contemporary socialist principles that correspond to his middle age.  This is a very dark novel, written in equally dark times. However, we also must bear in mind that its author is also a deeply suffering, tormented and alienated individual.

Fairview Park, Autumn 2013
Torment Today

That torment exists in our world today is wholly and patently beyond doubt.  In the past few days here in Ireland a young lad of eighteen years of age took the lives of his eight year old twin brothers and then drove some distance and ended his own life in a lonely spot on the bank of a river.  What desperation of soul or torment of mind drove him to that awful crime and sad denouement in the taking of his own life?  perhaps we'll never know.  One could list many more examples of such lonely despair, of such inner desperation and painful torment, but such a rehearsal would only serve to sicken both this writer and his intended readers. This contribution to the journal of a soul was not meant to be a sad one.  Rather, it was meant to be a sobering one calling us back to a realism that means we have to have our feet firmly planted in the ground of meaning in our own lives.  All these instances of torment must call us to a new and strong realism that is able to accept the pain and suffering that is obviously there in the lives of all human beings and to have the strength to work to help assuage it. Denial of mental torment and suffering is an avoidance of the important issue of mental health both in our families and in our communities.  This reflection is a call to be active and pro-active, to be on the alert for signs and symptoms of distress, depression and torment in the lives of significant others.

Choosing Life

The tormented want escape from their troubles.  Our task is to help them realize that an action like suicide is too extreme a reaction to what may be a mere temporary though significant problem.  There is always a possible solution to every problem if people are taught only to reach out to all the aid that is available all around them today.  Sigmund Freud spoke about two drives in life: Eros - the drive to procreate and indeed to live and Thanatos - the drive towards death and extinction.  When these two options present themselves to us we must train our hearts and minds to choose Life always and to avoid the drive towards death as an extreme answer to what are often temporary problems.  We choose life everyday when we get up and face the world, when we go out there to work and to be with others, to help them and care for them and to simply do our best in everything that we do.  We choose death every time we are in denial, ever time we are negative to self and others, every time we chastise and complain, refuse to get up or go to work, every time we intentionally malinger or put obstacles in the way of others.  Let us have courage always to face life head on, to choose it over death as a way of living happily and cheerily on Mother Earth.  Let us always be kind and compassionate to self and others and to plant those seeds of kindness and compassion in the hearts of our fellows.

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