Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Meaning and Grief: Two Insights from Heidegger

When we encounter a significant loss, it does something fundamental to our sense of identity.  Our losses, like most experiences, are not merely occurrences that happen externally in the world.  They are events which call for our response and understanding.  And when they involve people and situations that we are connected with or invested heavily in, then the urgency of sorting through them impinges on us all the more.  We live by our meanings, and when they are shaken by events of loss, we feel the challenge to our sense of identity.

But what is “meaning” anyway and how is it affected by grief?  This is where the philosopher Martin Heidegger can help with a couple of insights, both drawn from his book, Being and Time.  First, Heidegger has a unique understanding of personhood.  The term he uses in the German is hard to translate into an equivalent English word, so translations keep the German original, which is Dasein.  It means literally “being-there” (da-sein).  We have our being as persons right “there” in the middle of our world, embedded in the circumstances of our lives.  We are our unique relationships, habits, attitudes, family backgrounds, cultural identities, sense of possibilities, established meanings,and contingent experiences.  We as individuals don’t have an essence which lies underneath our situated existence.  We don’t have a dasein along with our sense of self.  Rather, we are our existence; we are our dasein.  We are always already a part of the world, embedded in the meanings of our lives. There is no essential me separated from my being in the world.

Now, this radical idea of the always already situated self has important implications for meaning and grief.  We start with the meanings which we find and establish in our lives.  These are often associated with our relationships.  For example, I am a father, a spouse, a son, a brother, a co-worker, a neighbor, a homeowner, a citizen, etc.  I understand and live all these relationships in terms of how meaningful I find and choose them to be. My sense of identity, of who I am, is tied up with the meanings I live, with the possibilities I choose and count on in relation to others in my world.  In some ways, I become established in and learn to count upon my uniquely lived meanings: my combination of understandings, experiences, values, practices and relationships.  In short, I live by my meanings.  I take them in and they become who I am. 

So in looking at grief, it is important to consider not simply feelings alone, nor simply an individual isolated from her or his everyday world, but at the meaningful patterns and people and values which we embrace and embody.  For example, I would not be who I am if I were not a father to my particular daughters, a spouse with a unique history to my particular wife, and many other specific circumstances which I understand and live in the world.  In a way, when things are going along relatively smoothly, I just assume my meanings as a part of who I am.

The challenge comes, however, when a significant loss happens.  Then we are confronted with a breakdown in meaning, and we are confronted with something that impinges on our sense of who we are.  There is a helpful analogy with Heidegger at this point.  In talking about our everyday practices in the world, he uses the example of a hammer.  A carpenter often uses a hammer without thinking too much about it as an object in and of itself.  He is used to its weight and size, the measure of a good swing to drive a nail, the fit and feel of it in his hand.  It is part of his everyday practice, and the hammer is like an extension of him as he works.  When he uses the hammer, he doesn’t need to stop and examine it as an object.  In fact, he could not do his work well if his focus was merely upon the hammer and not upon the work for which he was using it.  Through practice and experience, he just assumes the hammer as part of his world.  The meaning of the hammer is in the part it plays in his practice and life.  But if the hammer breaks or goes missing, then all of a sudden, the hammer becomes the focal point and a concern in and of itself.  The purposes for which he uses the hammer get frustrated and unfulfilled.  In a sense, his world (of carpentry) has broken down.

In a similar way, a significant loss and the grief which inevitably follows it is like this.  We often just assume the people and values and everyday practices and meanings in our lives as long as they are in place.  It is who we are.  But when the loss of a significant person occurs, our assumed meanings, and even our sense of self, breaks down.  This causes a series of reactions and responses as we mourn what we have lost and look for ways to reconstruct a new sense of meaning around our changed lives.  In a variety of ways, we begin to ask: "Who am I now?"  One of the leading researches in the field of Bereavement Studies is Robert Neimeyer.  He works with the “fundamental assumption that the attempt to reconstruct a world of meaning is the central process in the experience of grieving.” This task is often a messy, emotional affair, and it involves many considerations beyond this brief piece of writing.  But the tentative framework of meaning and its loss which I’ve mentioned here is an important tool to help us when we are hurting and feeling the challenges of our grief.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Owning It: Nietzsche and the Ultimate Task of Grief

The greatest weight. – What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest   loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine." If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, "Do you want this again and innumerable times again?" would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?      
                                                 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 341

This is one formulation of Nietzsche’s famous thought experiment known as “the eternal return of the same.”  He invites us to imagine the prospect of living our lives precisely as they are, with all that has happened and will happen to us, again and again forever.  Every moment, no matter how small, and every event, no matter how painful, would be relived ceaselessly throughout time.  Suppose someone, in this case a demon, offered us this choice?  To relive our lives, to go through the exact same things, only to have “the eternal hourglass” turn over and start yet again.  How would we respond?  Would we choose it or run from it?

Now, Nietzsche’s point with this experiment in thinking is not to convince us that life after death will actually be some kind of repetitive cycle of our present living.  Neither is it to get us to embrace in a glib way the tragic and painful times of our lives as if they weren’t that bad after all.  We all have parts of our lives which, if asked to choose to repeat them, we would recoil from.  And we all have regrets about things we wish we could do or undo.  Nietzsche’s point, however, is to get us to think of our lives in terms of their importance.  What if this life is the place of value and not some otherworldly destination?  What if this life and the way we live it carries ultimate weight because it is the only one we will ever have?   Nietzsche is trying to get us to look at our lives with fresh eyes, to see this world in which we live as having supreme importance—all our moments, all our passions, all our unexpected contingencies and meaningful relationships and decisive actions and unforeseen tragedies.  It all matters because it is this world, this life, which is the only one we’ve been given. 

One way of looking at Nietzsche’s experiment is as an encouragement to own our lives, all our lives, as precisely ours.  No one else stands where each of us stands; no one else experiences and feels precisely what each of us has known.  In a sense, life calls us to own (up to) what happens to us.  To integrate it with our living because it is in some sense ours.

To own something can simply mean to possess it or control it, or even to master it.  This is the strong sense of ownership and is not usually a helpful approach to living.  There is always more going on with us than we can say or control, especially when it comes to loss and grief, which we are coming to.  But there is another meaning of owning something which is helpful here, and this is when we own something by acknowledging or admitting it.  For example, someone may own (up to) his guilt over an action or someone may own (up to) her responsibility for something.  To own in this sense is to acknowledge or admit something that is true or valid for us and which may have a claim on us.  We own it by acknowledging that in some sense it is ours or is related to us, and this is the meaning I want to emphasize.

When it comes to loss in our lives and the grieving we do in response, owning what has happened to us and what is happening with us is the ultimate task.  I don’t mean to say that owning our losses is somehow a facile or easy or short-term gesture.  It is not a matter of simply giving cognitive assent to an event in our lives.  We are deeply emotional beings, and even our reason is emotionally saturated.   When we grieve, our emotions are trying to deal with the often overwhelming reality of our loss.  At this moment, I am mindful of the horrific tragedy in the Aurora movie theater in CO.  Those closest to that devastating loss will be working with their intense emotional responses and owning what has happened to them for a long time and even the rest of their lives.

William Worden, a teacher at Harvard Medical School and one of the most respected writers in the field of Bereavement Studies, has formulated the work of mourning in terms of four tasks:  to accept the reality of the loss, to process the pain of grief, to adjust to a world without the deceased, to find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life.  What I mean by owning a loss includes all these tasks.  We don’t always go through them in a neat linear fashion, nor do we emphasize them all equally in our experience.  Also, there is no time limit.  We can grieve intensely for a few months, get hit by an anvil of emotion on a first or second anniversary, and carry a sense of grief for someone into new contexts throughout our lives (closure is a bad word for grief!).  But these four tasks do point in the direction of a kind of journey which each griever can make, a journey of owning one’s loss and one’s life. 

We can own our grief with tears and memories, laments and laughter, anger and forgiveness.  We can own our grief with memorials and conversations and journaling and keepsakes.  We can own our grief by confronting our pain and working with it, reminding ourselves of our loss whenever we need to, and accepting ourselves when our reactions might feel intense and even a little crazy.  In short, we can own our grief in any number of unique, intense and even conflicting ways.  Whatever it takes to realize ever more deeply and transformatively the actuality of what we’ve experienced.  We can keep working on our lives to make them more authentically ours, like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day

What keeps us from owning our loss and grief?  Nietzsche would remind us that to emphasize another world beyond this one can devalue our lives and actions here.  Whatever we may think about another world, it should not be used to distort the importance of this one and the one life we are given here to lead.  Religious talk around loss such as “it is all part of God’s plan” is surely one way to diminish the importance of how we live and what we go through.  When this happens, I as an individual, with all my passions, choices, suffering, experiences and loves, get subsumed and discounted by “eternal plan” talk.  Let us own our losses for the full reality of what they are and what they mean to us. 

One other way to keep from owning our loss and grief is to give ourselves over to distractions in order to avoid the hurt and pain.  I understand and feel with those who are tempted by this tendency.  We’ve all been there standing at the precipice of our pain.  The temptation is to cling rigidly to old ways in denial, or to throw ourselves at a “soft” addiction like alcohol or drugs or food or sex or anything else that becomes a consuming distraction.   Such a way of distracting ourselves from what we’ve gone through and drifting along into the future keeps us from owning our lives in an authentic way.

So, Nietzsche would press us, “do you want your life?”  Are you working with the elements of the one life you’ve been given, even in your losses and grieving?  Or are you holding out for different terms, which is no life at all?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Valediction: Reflections on Grief


Lady with the frilled blouse
And simple tartan skirt,
Since you have left the house
Its emptiness has hurt
All thought.  In your presence
Time rode easy, anchored
On a smile; but absence
Rocked love’s balance, unmoored
The days.  They buck and bound
Across the calendar
Pitched from the quiet sound
Of your flower-tender
Voice.  Need breaks on my strand;
You’ve gone, I am at sea.
Until you resume command
Self is in mutiny.

This classic poem from Seamus Heaney offers an insightful consideration of the way we encounter and react to the loss of a loved one.  It is a “valediction,” literally a “saying farewell,” as when a student valedictorian gives the farewell address at a graduation.  Heaney cleverly crafts this poem using a string of images associated with sailing to depict the experience of grief when a loved one is lost.  The poem begins, “Lady with the frilled blouse and simple tartan skirt,” and right from the beginning we see that it is addressed to her, to the one who has been lost.  The whole poem is a kind of plea, a kind of yearning expressed to her.  When we are reacting to loss, this kind of yearning for the presence of the loved one can be a powerful emotion.[i]  We long for the presence of the other, for a living conversation which can restore what has been, but we cannot undo what has happened and bring that person back like she was.  So we often address the image of the one we have lost, which we hold inside, in whatever way that loved one is remembered by us, even if it is a “frilled blouse and simple tartan skirt.”

Heaney continues:  “Since you have left the house/ Its emptiness has hurt/ All thought.”  But how can thought hurt?  Aren’t thinking and feeling two different or separate things?  Several decades of recent brain research show this assumption to be largely false.[ii]  Even the most rational of thoughts carry emotional associations, and emotions themselves can have their own kind of logic.  Consider how we remember events and people.  Most of the time, when we are remembering something, we are not simply calling to mind neutral packets of data or information.  Our memories, our packets of information, are often emotion-laden.[iii]  We remember things by remembering how they felt and how they make us feel, whether joyful or anxious or fearful or angry or excited.  In fact, what gives memories their staying power within us is often the emotions with which we associate them, and nowhere is emotion tied to thinking so clearly as when we grieve.  The poet looks at the empty house after the loss of a loved one, and its emptiness hurts to think about.  The space which had once been filled with the presence of another, of activities and familiar routines, of conversations and comfort, of special moments and occasions, is now bare.  It hurts to think about because the space now serves to remind him of what is no longer available—a face, a certain gesture, the tone of a voice, comforting arms, a certain fragrance, daily routines, idiosyncratic moments, coordinated lives.  What makes loss so difficult is the simple yet profound fact that it hurts.  It hurts to think about and be reminded of all the spaces which two lives have shared, space which is now ripped open and drained of the other’s presence.  As two writers on grief put it, “Life is details and grief wrenches them away.  When death cuts away the details, in their place it leaves not so much a void but the discernible weight of pain to fill in the holes.”[iv]  Thought hurts when it is confronted with remembered spaces now lost.

Heaney then describes the felt contrast between the loved one’s presence and absence:  “In your presence/ Time rode easy/ Anchored on a smile; but absence/ Rocked love’s balance, unmoored/ The days.”  These lines are filled with sailing images.  He is remembering that the loved one’s presence felt like easy sailing, smooth days of enjoyment, always with her smile as an anchor to hold their lives together in place.  But now her absence has rocked the balance they shared like a ship which is tossed around and dangerously close to capsizing.  The patterns and routines of their life together have now been lost, and he is unmoored and drifting through the days.  This marked contrast is often felt by people when we grieve.  We say things like: “I just didn’t realize how good we had it.”  Or, “I wish John was here, I just feel so lost without him!”  This is an honest kind of reaction, a way to begin to express the felt dimensions of what has happened to us.  The yearning to cling to a remembered past over against a painful present is a kind of survival technique, a way of mitigating what can often feel overwhelming in the moment.  This is okay, particularly when grieving is at its most intense periods.  Yet it can also be a first step toward finding in the past those resources which will enable us to give nuance to our memories of loved ones, to put them in a new context, to find and create a new story of what has happened to us.           

Nevertheless, grief can feel tumultuous.  Heaney continues:  the days “buck and bound/ Across the calendar.”  Like a ship that is tossed around by powerful forces of wind and wave which converge around it, so the griever will feel emotions so powerful that they may scare him or her with their intensity.  And not only are they intense; they can be volatile.  We may wonder at times if we are going a little crazy, feeling deeply sad at one moment and angry or guilty the next.  These powerful and often conflicting emotions feel as if they slam into us or wash across us with little control on our part, like a huge wave washes across the deck of a ship.  Part of what sometimes keeps people stoic and tightly controlled in reaction to a loss can be a fear of being seen as out of control.  We don’t want to feel the assumed shame of crying at an awkward moment or blubbering in an “undignified” way.  But such moments are human, all too human, and they can be a natural part of experiencing loss.  We need one or more affirming people with whom we can be our grieving selves without a fearful sense of shame.

Heaney follows this with lines that offer a striking image for the experience of loss:  “Need breaks on my strand;/  You’ve gone, I am at sea.”  A “strand” is a nautical term for a shoreline or coastline, think stranded on a deserted island.  The grieving words of the poet here suggest the reality of being stranded, alone without the loved one.  This is the painful reality he must confront, and yet, his emotional need cannot seem to fully accept it.  Just as waves break upon a stranded beach, so his emotional waves keep breaking on the reality that he is alone.  He wants the loved one back, feels the intense need for her come in waves, and yet each time, they break upon the reality that she is gone.  The finality strikes the shore of his life:  “You’ve gone.”  This is the painful heart of grief, and the process of grieving is saying this to ourselves, letting it break upon the shore of our awareness, as many times as we need to realize it and keep realizing it.

Finally the poem concludes:  “Until you resume command/ Self is in mutiny.”  It is a plea for the loved one’s return in the hope that order will be restored and the griever’s self will no longer be in mutiny.  Until that happens, the self will feel chaotic and unmanageable.  This kind of sentiment and yearning for the return of the loved one and the restoration of life as it was before is entirely understandable.  It is the self’s way of reacting to loss and handling the overwhelming feelings which follow.  But at some point, there comes the realization that the griever cannot give “command” to a past that is no longer possible anymore.  The self’s “mutiny” can then be seen as a kind of search for those elements and resources within the self which will offer the possibility of change and even growth through the process.  The griever can experience strange and even mutinous feelings toward her or his past and loved one.  This is not betrayal, but more like a kind of testing of new parts of the self and new ways of approaching life after loss.  The griever can ultimately ask, “who am I going to be now that this has happened to me?”[v]

[i] Therese Rando, Grief, Dying, and Death: Clinical Interventions for Caregivers (Champaign: 
     Research Press, 1984), 33-4, writes, “There will be intense yearning, an aching and pining for
     what has been taken away.  This is the single most typical feature of grief.”
[ii] I am thinking here particularly of the work of Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion,
      Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Putnam, 1994).
[iii] Keith Ansell Pearson, How to Read Nietzsche (New York: Norton & Co., 2005), 55, summarizes
       Nietzsche’s insight on memory with the following description:  “Memory is not just a neutral
       recollection of events and things that have happened to us.  It is also bound up with our
      affective or emotional life.  The things of the past haunt us, have the potential to unsettle us,
      and remind us of experiences we have forgotten and wish to forget.  Life is full of mummies,
      ghosts and phantoms – a whole series of people and places that exist for us as virtual objects.”
[iv] Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff,  About Grief:  Insights, Setbacks, Grace Notes, Taboos (Chicago:
       Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 19.
[v] Susan Berger, The Five Ways We Grieve  (Boston: Trumpeter, 2009), writes, “As I began collecting
      the stories of more than sixty survivors of significant loss, I started to see patterns. When people
      experience the loss of a loved one, they consciously or unconsciously develop a new identity
      based on their changed circumstances.”  She draws from the work of Dr. Robert Neimeyer,
      whose recent efforts have been focused on the importance of “meaning reconstruction in
      response to loss.”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mortal Secrets

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.

So this wonderful and haunting book opens.  Imagine a daughter who goes with her grandfather to the zoo every week.  They observe and take delight in many animals, but the tigers take pride of place in their focus and conversation.  The grandfather carries an old copy of The Jungle Book with him, and in fact, he carries it everywhere he goes, as if it holds secrets worth keeping.  In a Balkan country that has seen so much war and devastation in the 20th century, a grandfather talks of tigers, of old stories which tread the border between reality and legend, of "the deathless man" and "the tiger's wife."  A granddaughter, now a doctor like her grandfather had been, recounts life with her grandfather, the stories he told, the mystery of his death, and the strange people and events with which he lived as a boy growing up in a small village.

We meet intriguing and sometimes pathetic characters whose lives are wrapped in an impenetrable tangle of facts, events, gossip and local legend: the Apothecary, Luka the Butcher, a gypsy family digging for cursed bones, Darisa the hunter/bear, the Tiger's Wife and others.  But winding through it all is the figure of the tiger, who lives in the strange, shifting space of fact and imagination.  The tiger carries a sacred combination of strength and subtlety, of beastliness and beauty.  And yet, like so many others, humans included, the tiger is mortal and subject to the vicissitudes of life, especially war.  When the zoo is caught up in the bombing of the city, and all the animals experience brutal shock and trauma without being able to understand it, one tiger begins to chew his own legs off and gnaws at them until they are gone and his life is taken in necessity and mercy.  This image captures the horrific consequences of war in an intensely powerful way because, as the author says, animals have a "biological honesty" which give their reactions a kind of primal innocense which humans don't often have. 

My family has a kitten, and from the time my daughter brought her home, I have been smitten with "Kitty."  A big part of the reason for this is because of the vulernability and honesty I feel from her.  She does her best to understand a world that is often beyond her.  She is subject at times to things she does not understand, things that overwhelm her, from vacuum cleaners to grooming offices.  I feel that vulnerability in her, even if she does not realize it all.  She lives by the honesty of instinct and learned prowess, but she is vulnerable, and something in me wants to protect her.  It may even be true that I allow myself to feel with her something of my own sense of vulnerability. As I read this book, I felt a similar sense of vulnerability for the tigers and people portrayed in it.

It is a story is about the place and value of secrets, of revealing moments of experience which reflect the beauty and vulnerability of life with such intensity that they must be guarded, if possible, from misunderstanding and distortion.  At one point, the grandfather takes his grandaughter downtown in the early morning hours before others have risen.  He shows her the oddly amazing scene of an elephant being led down the street by a handler who is luring it on with a treat in his hand.  The elephant is being taken to the local zoo before the town is peopled with morning business.  The granddaughter remarks that she is eager to tell her friends all about this stranger occurence, but her grandfather urges her not to waste such a gift on them.  Then he explains:

Eventually, my grandfather said: "You must understand, this is one of those moments." 
"What moments?" 
"One of those moments you keep to yourself," he said. 
"What do you mean?" I said.  "Why?" 
"We're in a war," he said.  "The story of this war--dates, names, who started it, why--that belongs to everyone.  Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who've never even been here or heard of it before.  But something like this--this is yours.  It belongs only to you.  And me.  Only to us."

It is the kind of secret which reveals the value and intensity of life, and it is not easily shared, because such sharing leaves it vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse.  Such risk lies at the heart of every story told where the story both captures something meaningful and yet leaves out so much that is vital.  Stories often hide mortal secrets by transmuting them into the common biases and dispositions of those who tell and hear them.  We learn this truth again and again as the granddaughter traces the histories of the towns and people behind the stories she learned from her grandfather.

Eventually we learn about the town in which the grandfather grew up, with its cast of characters and transformative events.  We learn of the secrets behind the stories, of what got lost and remains lost.  We learn about the tiger's journey, the strange woman who came to be known as The Tiger's Wife, and the heartbreaking secrets which made up the vulnerable interactions of their lives in a town called Galina.  The book's final sentences evoke the mortal secrets which make up their lives: 
There is, however, and always has been, a place in Galina where the trees are thin, a wide space where the saplings have twisted away and light falls broken and dappled on the snow.  There is a cave here, a large flat slab of stone where the sun is always cast,  My grandfather's tiger lives there, in a glade where the winter does not go away.  He is the hunter of stag and boar, a fighter of bears, a great source of confusion for the lynx, a rapt admirer of the colors of birds.  He has forgotten the citadel, the nights of fire, his long and difficult journey to the mountain.  Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger's wife, for whom, on certain nights, he goes calling, making that note that falls and falls.  The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore.

That last line, the last one of the book, haunts me.  The ache of something lost, of secrets which die with their holders, of special moments destined to be lost no matter how intense and transformative at the time.  Our secrets, our most intense and vulnerable moments, are transferred into superstitions, gossip, stories, legends and myths.  They are not only open to misunderstanding and distortion, they are also mortal and subject to the eventual passing away of all things.

The mortality of our lives and of our secrets is what haunts me.  Those special moments which we alone know, or which we share with a few special others, die with us and get swept along until they are lost in the movement of history.  It is a hard thing to consider that my moments with others, my deepest experiences of vulnerability and meaning with my family or friends, the highlights and lowlights of my life, will not be kept forever in some special place or eternal record.  Do I have the courage to live with vitality and passion and sacrfice, knowing that the value of what I undergo and share will one day get lost in the haze of history as later generations move on?  Can I live knowing that my secrets are mortal?

The night after I finished reading this book, I woke up and noticed that my book, which had been resting on the floor where I left it, had a torn cover which had been punctured with claws and gnawed on.  It was my Kitty who evidently got hold of it and marked it in her own inimitable way.  Either that, or I was visited in my dreams by a tiger and the cover of my book was the only evidence of my secret.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Sun as Gift

"Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history;
the sun taught me that history is not everything."
                                                      --Albert Camus, "Preface," Lyrical and Critical Essays

"The sea was gentle and warm, the sun fell lightly on their soaked heads, and the glory of the light filled their young bodies with a joy that made them cry out incessantly.  They reigned over life and over the sea, and, like nobles certain that their riches were limitless, they heedlessly consumed the most gorgeous of this world's offerings."
                                                  --Albert Camus, The First Man (his semi-autobiographical
                                                                        novel about his poor childhood in Algeria)

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Door into the Dark

All I know is a door into the dark.

I am struck by this opening line from Seamus Heaney’s poem, “The Forge.”  The image resonates with something deep within me.  A door, a threshold, an entrance to a new place, yet a place without comforting orientation, a door-way which does not lead to the foreseeable but into darkness, the realm of something unknown, full of risk, threat, insecurity and  potential revealing moments.  I am drawn to this image of the darkened doorway even as I feel ambivalent toward it.  It evokes the lure of something primal, something truthful emerging in the dark places of my life, a collision of mystery and meaning.  It suggests the possibility of something important to gain or lose, of walking into an unsafe and unsure place, which may be costly, and yet, also somehow worth the step.  Here is the poem in full:

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immovable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

The door into the dark leads to the workshop of the “forge” or “smithy” (or blacksmith, more popularly), one of the oldest processes for shaping metal.  Some think Heaney is using this extended reflection on the forge to evoke something of the writer’s creative craft, perhaps even his own.  For me, this poem suggests something about the search for creative authenticity in each person, perhaps even my own. 
“Outside,” where the history of what has been made and done and lived lies on the ground in the form of “old axles and iron hoops rusting,” forms of things which have outlived their usefulness are scattered around.  They once served life well, but now take up extra room and await the destiny of metal scraps—to be lost forever or broken down and re-formed for a new purpose.  “Inside,” one hears the “short-pitched ring” of hammer on anvil as the forge pounds out new shapes.  It is hard work, breaking down hardened edges “to beat real iron out,” working with powerful forces of heat and compression, setting new forms in place “when a new shoe toughens in water.”  It would be easy to get burned, and the “unpredictable fantail of sparks” is a fiery reminder that consequences from this effort are not easily foreseen. 

In an important way, one must own this “inside” work, not worried foremost about the perceptions of others.  The forge, “leather-aproned, hairs in nose,” has a kind of toughness for the necessary work and a rough disdain for the games of refined expectation and societal posture.  He takes a break at one point, “leans out on the jamb” to notice the larger society “where traffic is flashing in rows,” then “grunts and goes in” where he continues the important work of his life.

Not seen from the outside, the anvil resides in the dark and “must be somewhere in the centre.”  It is both central and “immovable” in the creative work that takes place.  There is a firm face to the anvil on which the forge depends in order to get through hard work.  Here, at the very creative center, the anvil is “at one end square,” with logical right angles and the reasoning of geometry.  Yet the other side is “horned as a unicorn,” evoking that mythical beast of history which points to magic, inner purity, and the sacred.  The anvil, by it very shape, brings together logic and magic, reason and the sacred.  It is “an altar,” a place of creative encounter and change, where the forge “expends himself in shape and music.”  Here is the transformative space at the heart of authentic creation.  To get there, one must enter a “door into the dark.”       

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Choices, My Projects, My Life

“I start out on a hike with friends.”[i]  This is how the French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, begins a particularly intriguing example.  After several hours of walking together, his fatigue builds and, after resisting it initially, he throws down his knapsack by the side of the road and plops down beside it, letting the others know that he has given up. 

    Someone will reproach me for my act and will mean
    thereby that I was free—that is, not only was my act not 
    determined by any thing or person, but also I could have
    succeeded in resisting my fatigue longer.  I could have
    done as my companions did and reached the resting place
    before relaxing.  I shall defend myself by saying that I was
    too tired.  Who is right?

Now of course he could have acted differently and gone on with his hiking companions, but Sartre contends, this does not get to the heart of the issue.  Instead, he asks whether he could have acted differently without changing the network of fundamental projects which make up his being-in-the-world.  I’ll explain.

Consider Sartre and his friends hiking together.  At some point Sartre gives in and quits because of his fatigue.  Now, assuming that they are all roughly in the same shape and feeling a similar amount of fatigue, what accounts for the difference between his actions and those of his friends?  Why do his friends want to go on?  The fatigue cannot be a reason in and of itself, because he and his friends are feeling many things as they journey along, and fatigue is only one background element in their awareness as their bodies interact with the surroundings.  There are other elements and different motivations which each hiker carries, and these affect how they will respond to their fatigue.  As Sartre asks, “How does it happen therefore that they suffer their fatigue differently?”  Their choice to go on seems to be part of a larger perspective which they have embraced. 

Imagine, Sartre continues, that one of his companions explains why he wants to go on.  He readily admits fatigue, but emphasizes that he loves to give himself over to it, to feel it as part of the way he encounters and discovers the world around him, to know the reality of rocky paths and steep slopes, of sun on the back of his neck and strength in his legs.  His fatigue is part of his passion for a larger project he has chosen and is now motivated by.  It is a way of engaging the world more fully and giving himself over to it with a kind of trusting abandon.  “It is only in and through this project that the fatigue will be able to be understood and that it will have meaning for him.”

So the difference between Sartre and his hiking companions is between the kinds of projects they have chosen for their lives and the motivations connected with them.  Sartre did not want to go on because he experienced his fatigue in relation to a different set of chosen projects, ones not associated with pushing himself on a hike.   

Now I don’t want to pursue it further in detail here, but Sartre goes on to emphasize that all our projects are part of a fundamental way we choose to live in the world, and that we have some measure of freedom to make such choices in the face of the contingencies which inevitably surround us.

What I am interested in is thinking about our lives in terms of projects, which are always a mixture of what we embrace or find ourselves in or feel confidence toward.  Some of these may be relatively small and temporary, while others are profound and sustaining.  But all of them form the basis of our living, our ethical choices and our identities.  Bernard Williams, for example, writes that our projects involve:

    The obvious kind of desire for things for oneself, one’s
    family, one’s friends, including basic necessities of life,
    and in more relaxed circumstances, objects of taste.  Or
    there may be pursuits or interests of an intellectual,
    cultural or creative character. . . . Beyond these, someone
    may have projects connected with his support of some
    cause. . . .  Or there may be projects which flow from
    some more general disposition towards human conduct
    and character.[ii]

Such projects are primary in accounting for our lives, because there are no other “deeper” reasons for what we do.  My projects and the commitments associated with them have a primacy because they shape my character, comprise my sense of self, and give me reasons to live.

    Quite simply, if perhaps somewhat melodramatically,
    projects confer meaning, or at least represent a necessary
    condition for the possibility of a meaningful life: no
    projects, no meaning.[iii]

Now, all of this philosophical description is a long entrance into the place where I find myself these days.  I have some stable projects in my life, to be sure, especially around family and friendships, but my sense of work and vocation, my fundamental projects about the kind of work I do, is now up in the air.  For twelve years, I have engaged in a project called “pastor of Twinbrook Baptist Church.”  A lot of my choices and motivations over this time were associated with this fundamental project.  Even more, for most of my adult years before that, I engaged in projects which have constituted my sense of religious calling and training.  Now that my recent twelve year project is over, and I’m feeling uncertain about the resilience of my earlier projects, I am struggling with the affects and changes.  All the usual motivations and choices (whether or not to go on with the hike) are getting reshuffled.  It makes for uneven days and uneasy feelings. 

The challenge, as I see it, is twofold:  to find a fundamental project which both resonates with me and which is doable in the present state of things.  It should resonate with me in the sense that it connects with my own inner sense of interest, motivation and values.  This is not about selfishness; it is about finding a place where I can give of myself and find some pleasure and satisfaction in doing so.  Yet it should also be doable in that I have to find a place of work in the limits of our present economy.  I cannot just pick out the terms of a project and slide into it.  I must see what’s out there, consider my options, allow myself to encounter the unexpected and go through a process of achieving a position.  These two conditions, self-interest and economic viability, will almost certainly be in tension with one another.  I may need to compromise in one or both areas.  But this felt need also connects to another fundamental project of mine, my family and its support.  So I will continue these days to roam through the shifting boundaries of my projects and choices.  As my projects go, so does my life.   

[i] Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Gramercy Books, 1956), 453.  Sartre’s example of fatigue and subsequent discussion can be found on pages 453-59.
[ii] Bernard Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” in Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), 110-11, as quoted by Mark P. Jenkins, Bernard Williams (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2006), 33.
[iii] Jenkins, 33.