I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part
and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy
whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
~ Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass,” 24
We still marvel at Whitman’s self-confident faith in his own divinity. When I say “we” I mean those spiritually brave or insolent enough not to be outraged by his assertion “Divine am I inside and out” — these days students tend to be more religious and conservative than the faculty. And to think that in the sixties and seventies young people boldly blasphemed about the “cleansing the doors of perception.”
How was Whitman seen in his own times? As a radical to be sure, but mostly because, with few exceptions, his poems did not rhyme. Unlike Baudelaire, whose Flowers of Evil made him endure an obscenity trial, Whitman’s problem was getting any attention — that’s why he wrote reviews of his own work using a variety of pen names. In a chain store in Los Angeles I found his book in the Gardening section. I placed it in the slim Poetry section (consisting almost entirely of Rumi). The next time I was in the same store, Whitman was back in the Gardening section.
Once Whitman would have been burned at the stake, but he lived in more lenient times, eventually becoming known as the “good gray poet.” He was raised as a Quaker, a believer in personal contact with the Holy Spirit rather than in any dogma. In his poems he worked out his own spirituality, simpler by far than Blake’s or Yeats’s.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James makes Whitman the epitome of the “once-born.” Let me quote James:
“God has two families of children on this earth,” says Francis W. Newman, “the once-born and the twice-born," and the once-born he describes as follows: “They see God not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.”
. . . The advance of liberalism in Christianity, during the past fifty years, may fairly be called a victory of healthy-mindedness over the morbidness of the old hell-fire theology. We have now preachers who ignore, or even deny, eternal punishment, and insist on the dignity rather than on the depravity of man. They look at the continual preoccupation of the old-fashioned Christian with the salvation of his soul as something sickly and reprehensible.”
Let’s pause for a moment to digest this. Francis Newman was the younger brother of the famous Cardinal Newman, but far less orthodox. He objected to infant baptism. There were also rumors that he did not believe in eternal punishment, implying (horror!) that god would not be so cruel. Since hell and the crucifixion as the “bloody ransom” from Satan were the very foundation of organized Christianity, Francis Newman was mocked and criticized, a writer of fine but now forgotten essays. I am thrilled that William James brings him and his concept of the “once born” out of oblivion.
The “once-born” are those rare (at least in the 19th century) individuals who do not see god as a “strict judge.” Shockingly, they believe in a kind, merciful deity, “the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world.”
Must we be “born again”? No, the once-born would reply. We need only to see that we are good, the world is good, and god is good — and that the best way to worship is to feel joy.
It’s clear that James does not really approve of the once-born. They are too cheerful to crave religion. They don’t seem to need it. Let again me quote James:
“As examples are better than descriptions, I will quote a document received in answer to Professor Starbuck's circular of questions. The writer's state of mind may by courtesy be called a religion:
Q. What does Religion mean to you?
A. It means nothing. Praying, singing of hymns, and sermonizing are pernicious — they teach us to rely on some supernatural power, when we ought to rely on ourselves.
Q. What things work most strongly on your emotions?
A. Lively songs and music; Scott, Burns, Byron, Longfellow, Shakespeare. I greatly enjoy nature.
Q. What is your notion of sin?
A. It seems to me that sin is a condition, a disease, incidental to man's development not being yet advanced enough.
If we are in search of a broken and a contrite heart, clearly we need not look to this brother. We have in him an excellent example of the optimism encouraged by popular science.”
Let’s stop here again. James announces that in the once-born we find no “broken and contrite heart” that seems a prerequisite for salvationist religiosity. Earlier in the book James describes the once-born as those “whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.”
This is a somewhat (?!) patronizing description of a child-like person “whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions.” They stroll about looking at flowers rather than thinking of the hell under the thin flower-bearing crust of the earth. Can such an innocent even be a poet? Where is the trauma, the storm, the Byronic and Nietzschean torments that drive the compulsion to be creative? Not, apparently, in the once-born.
Yet Whitman’s achievement severely undercut James’s dismissal of him as pathologically optimistic. Though James doesn’t use the word, the reader can sense the severe censure of the word “shallow” trying to push through terms like “enchanting innocencies.” But then it’s only in the later decades of the twentieth century that both Whitman and Emily Dickinson were pronounced to the be greatest American poets — both completely unorthodox when it comes to religion (Anna Akhmatova would have called them “heresiarchs,” along with Tolstoy and Dostoyevski).
“CUDDLING UP TO GOD”
In a footnote, James even quotes a woman who told Newman that it gives her great pleasure to think she “could always cuddle up to God.” And then there was of course that great heresiarch, Whitman: “The supreme contemporary example of such an inability to feel evil is of course Walt Whitman. “His favorite occupation,” writes his disciple, Dr.Bucke, “seemed to be strolling or sauntering about outdoors by himself, looking at the grass, the trees, the flowers, the vistas of light, the varying aspects of the sky, and listening to the birds, the crickets, the tree frogs, and all the hundreds of natural sounds.”
Imagine! Cuddling up to god instead of thinking of one’s sins and praying for mercy . . . (dog chin
“NEW THOUGHT,” THE FORERUNNER OF NEW AGE
I find James quite relevant even today, so let me quote further:
“To my mind a current far more important and interesting religiously is that which has recently poured over America and seems to be gathering force every day, to which I will give the title of the 'Mind-cure movement.' This 'New Thought,' is a deliberately optimistic scheme of life, and it must now be reckoned with as a genuine religious power.
Let me pass to some concrete accounts of experience with the mind-cure religion. One of them, a woman, writing as follows:
‘The first underlying cause of all sickness, weakness, or depression is the human sense of separateness from that Divine Energy which we call God.’
On the whole, one is struck by a psychological similarity between the mind-cure movement and the Lutheran and Wesleyan movements. To the anxious query, "What shall I do to be saved?" Luther and Wesley replied: "You are saved now, if you would but believe it." And the mind-curers come with precisely similar words — “You must awaken to the knowledge of your real being.”
Let’s pause again. This real being, this essence, is the divinity of man, rather than his “total depravity.” Divinity, not depravity. This is a revolution in perception! Speak about culture wars and the rise of the opposite of Calvinism . . . It saddens me to think of the slower evolution of Catholicism, mired as it was in the cult of suffering.
The “divinity of man” is a term embraced by New Age devotees, but avoided by those who see themselves as secular; they see it as tainted with religion. A century after James’s famous
book was published, the most frequent term for this “divinity” is “human dignity.” The acknowledgment of human dignity presupposes that human beings are essentially good by nature rather than “fallen.” Ideally, they are also “healthy-minded,” as James calls it: optimistic and full of the joy of life. To quote that king of the healthy-minded, Walt Whitman:
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.
Here is one family no one would call dysfunctional
JAMES ON THE “SICK SOUL”
In contrast to the healthy-minded (it’s striking that James doesn’t call them “healthy souls”), the sick souls seek to “maximize evil” and magnify the sense of their own sinfulness — perhaps somewhat the way the depressed seek to increase sadness. It’s the sick souls that “lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins” — or for their failure to live up to mother’s expectations.
Let me continue to quote from James; what he says deserves renewed attention, since hell-fire theology is by no means dead.
“The healthy-minded live habitually on the sunny side of their misery line; the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension. Does it not appear as if one who lived more habitually on one side of the pain-threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?
What single-handed man was ever on the whole as successful as Luther? Yet when he had grown old, he looked back on his life as if it were an absolute failure.
A Catholic philosopher, Father Gratry, writes:
“I thought myself, in fact, rejected by God, lost, damned! I felt something like the suffering of hell. Before that I had never even thought of hell. Heaven did not seem to me worth going to. It was like a vacuum; a mythological elysium, an abode of shadows less real than the earth.”
So much for the incapacity for joyous feeling. A much worse form of melancholy is positive and active anguish. I quote from a patient in a French asylum.
“I am afraid of God as much as of the devil, so I drift along, thinking of nothing but suicide, but with neither courage nor means here to execute the act. Oh, if he would but kill me, devil take him! Death, death, once for all!”
At about the age of fifty, Tolstoy relates that he began to have moments of perplexity he calls arrest, as if he knew not “how to live.”
“I felt that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested. Behold me then, a man happy and in good health, no longer going shooting, lest I should yield to the too easy temptation of putting an end to myself with my gun.”
When disillusionment has gone as far as this the happiness of Eden never comes again. We find a somewhat different type of religious melancholy in John Bunyan's autobiography.
“If now I should have burned at the stake, I could not believe that Christ had love for me. My original and inward pollution, was my plague and my affliction. I was sorry that God had made me a man.”
Neither Bunyan nor Tolstoy could become what we have called healthy-minded. They had drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste.
Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! help! No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have a sound of reality in the ears of victims such as these. But the deliverance must come in as strong a form as the complaint. Buddhism and Christianity are are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life.”
“NO MORE NEED OF SALVATION THAN A SQUIRREL”
~ The feeling that one is worthless and a total failure is of course known excruciatingly well by anyone who has suffered from repeated episodes of serious depression. This feeling of of being a worthless failure lies at the core what William James calls the “sick soul.” It doesn’t matter if the guilt and worthlessness are imaginary; the sick soul feels it doesn’t deserve to live. It’s the sick soul that is open to the idea of “salvation.” The healthy soul “has no more need of salvation than a squirrel,” as George Elliot put it in Middlemarch.
NATURALISM VERSUS SALVATIONISM
The “once-born,” James says, tend to live in peace and contentedness; they feel in harmony with nature and don’t worry about metaphysical issues. “Their impulses are consistent with one another, their will follows without trouble the guidance of their intellect, their passions are not excessive, and their lives are little haunted by regrets.”
(I am not sure if Whitman’s passions were “not excessive,” but let that be.)
The healthy-minded, the “once-born,” do not deny the existence of suffering, but they would not say that life IS suffering. Life is both suffering and joy, with the balance leaning to joy. Nor would they call themselves “miserable sinners”; they’ll admit they made mistakes, but they don’t sit in judgment on themselves. On the whole the once-born feel that they are good, and that most humans are good. From the point of view of the sick souls, what nerve!
AMERICANS DON’T SEE THEMSELVES AS SINNERS
(A shameless digression: Coming from a Catholic country, I was immediately struck by the perception that Americans don’t think of themselves as sinners. The average American does not label himself a sinner, much less a miserable sinner. He has no habit of beating his chest, saying Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa — something that I, along with other children in my religion class, was taught already at the age of eight. As a Catholic, at eight you were already a sinner; only radicals within the church thought that the age of moral responsibility should be raised to twelve.)
(Another shameless digression: Even American Jews don’t seem to know how to suffer properly. I witnessed a worried young woman ask a rabbi if it’s OK to eat pizza on Passover. Yes, he replied, because that’s unleavened bread; he also OK’d enchiladas. True, that still leaves a reservoir of available guilt over the minutiae of observance, but when Passover has devolved to pizza, we don’t get the right quality of self-torment.)
THE TRAUMATIZED, SELF-TRAUMATIZING SOUL AND OPENNESS TO CONVERSION
Those meant to be “twice-born” are more complex, their mind a battlefield of competing selves (today we might refer to “competing neural networks”). Here is more James: “If the individual be of tender conscience and religiously quickened, the unhappiness will take the form of moral remorse and compunction, of feeling inwardly vile and wrong, and of standing in false relations to the author of one’s being and appointer of one’s spiritual fate.”
Nietzsche would undoubtedly agree: to be a devout Christian, you first must be made to feel guilty, especially in relation to an unrealistic ideal of saintliness. That’s the essence of “the hangman’s metaphysics” — the commandments were created to be broken, so that people would feel perpetually weak and guilty. Then in your unhappiness over your vile self you will seek “salvation.”
If you don’t feel you’re a sinner, there’s little hope that will take organized religion seriously — though you may, like Whitman, construct your own maverick happy spirituality whose main mode of worship is joy. Imagine, instead of becoming a self-flagellating nun, you go on for a walk like Whitman, perfectly happy with the world and with yourself.
It’s the sick, self-tormenting soul (“The traumatized soul is self-traumatizing” ~ Greg Mogenson, “God Is a Trauma” — yes, this is the book with which I executed an insolent fly) — the human being who feels utterly flawed and worthless, who is open to conversion. But, based on my own experience and that of many others, the relief may be also be obtained by dropping the religion that makes one feel sinful and worthless. As James himself says, “Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child’s small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity.” And that “wider intellectual life” may be reached by breaking out of the prison of toxic religion. When religion undermines your already fragile sense of self-worth, losing faith is a glorious liberation from both the invisible bully in the sky and the quite visible social bully, the church.
I wonder how James would react if he somehow guessed that in our times religious conversion, or conversion to more devout religiosity, would become the less frequent version of adolescent being “born again.” Losing the childhood faith during adolescence is almost a cliché.
One’s childhood faith is an accident of birth rather than a deliberate choice. A hundred years after James, discarding the accidental religion of childhood is how we step into the wider life. For me the great change of the “born again” sort came only when I decided not to be depressed. That was the true yes to life and to myself, to real “no-excuses" adulthood. But the FIRST STEP TOWARD ADULTHOOD, the one that took the most courage, was leaving the church. Julia Sweeney’s words instantly resonated with me:
“It took me years, but letting go of religion has been the most profound wake up of my life. I feel I now look at the world not as a child, but as an adult. I see what's bad and it's really bad. But I also see what is beautiful, what is wonderful. And I feel so deeply appreciative that I am alive. How dare the religious use the term 'born again.' That truly describes freethinkers who've thrown off the shackles of religion so much better!” ~ Julia Sweeney
COLERIDGE AND RILKE: THE STRING THEORY
The optimistic “once-born” mentality and the torments of the “sick soul” can be found outside of mainstream religion. Furthermore, they can be found in the same person at different stages of life. Coleridge sounded “once-born” when he wrote “The Eolian Harp”:
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so filled;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.
. . .
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
~ Coleridge, “The Eolian Harp”
By contrast, here is Rilke’s “string theory”:
Things are violin-bodies
filled with murmuring darkness:
in it dreams the weeping of women,
in it the resentment of entire
generations stirs in its deep . . .
~ Rilke, “At the Edge of the Night,” Book of Images
Coleridge imagines not just a collective Logos, but also a collective Eros. This collective consciousness (“at once the Soul of each, and God of all”) is a kind of psychic wind, an “intellectual breeze” that sweeps over each eolian harp — each being, that is, producing a corresponding music.
For Rilke, the instrument that inspired similar thoughts was the violin. In one poem he even questions “Strange violin, are you following me?” His years of wandering from one rented room to another seemed to have their own soundtrack, including the violin being played next door where another lonely tenant would soothe himself by playing, finding home in his music.
Rilke too concludes that “things are violin-bodies.” But instead of a happy mood and evocation of pantheism, from this audible world-soul we get human suffering: the weeping of women, the resentments of whole generations that thought they didn’t get what they expected from life. Instead of an amorous melody we have “murmuring darkness.” Rilke’s years of genteel poverty show their imprint here.
Both Coleridge and Rilke seem to agree on this: a person is not just an isolated individual with an isolated consciousness. They are instruments of a collective consciousness that speaks through each. But at least in his youth, Rilke was far from being “healthy-minded.” There is a great consciousness of suffering in his poems. He too formed his own system of spirituality, but it could be argued that to the end, though he strained to say yes to life, he was rarely joyful.
James would classify Rilke as a “sick soul.” But Rilke’s journey did not take him to belief in a loving god — Rilke regarded all religions as human invention, and detested Catholicism in particular. Nor could he accept Nature as all good, as the Romantic poets seemed to do. Rilke tried and tried: with the “neighbor god” who is pathetically dependent on man; with the magnificent but overwhelming angels who would not hear him; with Orpheus as the spirit of poetry, the “greater poem behind each poem.” But we don’t get the sense of a nurturing, fully supportive life philosophy. We get the longing.
Coleridge, too, was ultimately a “sick soul.” But for a while at least he was buoyed up both by the happiness of the early years of his marriage and the supportive philosophy of nature that he shared with Wordsworth. In the end his “life support” crumbled. The sick soul doesn’t necessarily experience a religious conversion or form his own supportive spirituality. Sadly, quite often the person prone to suffering and pessimism simply keeps on suffering.
MY “LUTHER MOMENT”
I like William James's pragmatic (of course!) stance on faith and the need for evidence. James said that if a particular religion works for you and helps you live a better life, just go ahead and don't worry about the lack of objective evidence. The pragmatic evidence (your life is better) is reason enough to believe whatever you believe. I think that may indeed work for a lot of people, and I have a friend who “chooses to believe” in a benevolent god on that basis. “I only believe that which makes me happy,” she told me.
I did not burst out laughing. I even felt somewhat envious of her. I am in the perhaps unfortunate group that needs some objective evidence. Once even the appearance of evidence fell apart, I could not believe, benefits or not. In what I see as my "Luther moment," I did consider the possibility that I was wrong, and that rejecting the existence of god and ceasing to pray and go to church would result in eternal damnation. And I realized that "ich kann nicht anders" — I cannot do otherwise" — even if that's the horrible price. I will not go through the motions of belief out of fear, but have to act according to what I see as truth. I admired Luther's courage the moment I first heard about him. I was still a Catholic but Luther instantly joined my pantheon of heroes.
Here is a section of a poem of mine that describes my personal greatest moment of courage:
At fourteen I said, “If God exists,
let him strike me with lightning.”
I waited, trembling with terror.
For five minutes I could hardly breathe.
Pigeons cooed, fragile sunlight
redeemed the rain-streaked masonry.
I began to walk fast, away
from that first-communion girl,
lilacs in her arms, moist and heavy,
veins crossing the silk of leaves.
no, that’s not me
“Sometimes there is a delay,” Adam Zagajewski quipped when I recounted the experience. In retrospect there is a comic element here: I was expecting a fictitious being to strike me dead for daring to think he’s fictitious. But I really did tremble with terror. What if I was wrong? Then I was putting my whole eternity on line. Those who believe in the validity of Pascal’s wager would counsel the opposite action: try to force yourself to believe just so you don’t end up in hell as punishment for non-belief. But I was ready to accept eternal damnation rather than worship a sadistic god who consigned the great majority of his alleged children to never-ending torment, primarily because they didn’t happen to be born Catholic. I felt that to worship such god was worse than worshipping Hitler.
My kind of “conversion” is often called “de-conversion.” At fourteen, I did enter that wider intellectual life of which James speaks. The new life would be impossible if I’d stayed within the rigid bounds of Catholicism which forbids questioning, free discussion, and any thinking on one’s own. (As for the argument that Catholicism has become more liberal and now you can raise questions, I answer, “Sure, now you can raise questions. But the answer is No.”)
Did I automatically become “healthy-minded”? Was I completely sure that the monstrous god of punishment really did not exist? That Jesus is never, never, never coming back to hurl me or anyone into hell? No — the journey to a strength-giving certainty took years.
THE NIAGARA FALLS MOMENT (NOT MINE)
Each person’s journey to atheism is different. For some it begins only in college, when they are exposed to powerful secular worldview. Others experience a moment in church when they realize that the uplift they used to get in their early teens has turned to sheer tedium, and can no longer fight the perception that their inherited religion is indeed archaic nonsense.
The process of parting with belief may be gradual, or it may be traced to a particular event. My favorite story of “de-conversion” is one man’s account how in his youth he went with his girlfriend to visit Niagara Falls. Impressed with the sight, he began to speak about the Creator. His girlfriend gently nudged him to the plaque that explained how the falls were formed (Wisconsin Glacier, hello). He found it fascinating.
After returning home he began to read about geology. Next came paleontology and astrophysics (talk about the expanding universe, in this case the mental universe!) He found himself more and more interested in scientific explanations of the origins of what we see in the world, and found these explanations much more convincing than anything he’d learned in Sunday school. But it all started with a plain little plaque explaining the origin of Niagara Falls.
FOR ME, THE GREAT CHOICE WAS STILL AHEAD
But right away, as soon as I left the church, I felt happier than before; stress caused by ridiculous scrupulosity and the fear of eternal damnation was largely gone. Largely, but not entirely. Somehow I too had drunk too deeply from the cup of bitterness and the habit of harshly judging myself. Ahead lay many years of depression. My “conversion experience” to healthy-mindedness came only when I realized more vividly than ever that life was limited, and that I had a choice: to judge myself harshly and remain depressed, or to try to be productive.
Once I saw what the choice was, there was really no choice except to be productive. The door to depression, once so readily opened by the thought, “I am a total failure,” slammed shut in an instant. In fact it was more dramatic than the closing of a door. The door vanished. Now I couldn’t enter depression even if I wanted to. It wasn’t my first experience of a life-changing shift in perception, so I knew I had no choice. Nothing had the power to restore the former state of mind. From now on, instead of brooding and having crying fits, I’d have to cope. A small part of me didn’t like that at all.
I didn’t dare expect happiness. But work works; for me and many others, it’s the best therapy. By focusing on work, I gradually recovered from anhedonia and found myself more contented than ever before.
I found three others who also “decided” (if that’s the word) to give up depression in a moment of insight. But the story I love best is that of Steven Hawking. After being diagnosed with ALS, an incurable neurodegenerative disease, he became depressed and started drinking. According to what I’ve read, one of his professors said to him, “You still have a few years left. Do you want to drink yourself to death, or would you like to try to make a contribution to physics?” And simply being presented with that choice was enough.
SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT RELIGION
Let me close with a quotation not from James, but from Sam Harris, in his newest book on spirituality without religion:
I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines — such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is.
But wait, Whitman already talked about the full range of human experience in a way free of dogma, so the last words must be his. This is the final section of The Song of Myself:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
DOES RELIGION DEPEND ON UNHAPPINESS?
The Once-Born remind me of Mary Oliver's "you do not have to good ...you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves".... a great blog
Yes! that important question of happy versus religious.
But then catholicism has never been about being happy. It never encouraged happiness, only guilt and suffering — because then who’d want to spoil the happiness of a Sunday morning by going to church to beat your chest and repeat, “My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault”?
The message: you have to be unhappy now in order to be happy in the afterlife, after centuries of purifying punishment in the purgatory.
All food is “devil’s food.” If you eat chocolate now instead of fasting, you’ll regret it as you burn in a lake of fire.
The “once-born” have no need for religion, which brings us to this: does religion depend on unhappiness? It’s addicts who are most devout, and other people who have deep emotional wounds and problems. Those who struggle, those in the trenches of life.
The once-born already have a supportive life philosophy. They take a walk and are happy. Trees mean more to them than altars, and much more than the crucifix (isn’t it time to finally get rid of the crucifix?)
Actually I hate Oliver’s poem because of that first line, but you, dear Hyacinth, have just shown me an interpretation I haven’t thought of: that it’s not really “good” as a synonym of “kind to yourself and others,” but only good in the sense of obedience, as defined by various churches. Of course old-time catholicism could never accept the body, much less letting it love what it loves.
For me it’s more about what my mind loves. "My body” (so to speak, since sensation is also the mind) loves coffee and chocolate, but it would not be wise to eat only that. But it might be an interesting experiment: would there come a time when an aversion to coffee and chocolate would arise?
If the poem started, “You do not have to go to church,” I would find it completely inoffensive. Or, “You do not have it be perfect.” Yes, especially “You do not have to be perfect.” That idea would have helped me enormously when I was younger.
I think the culture is evolving a collective supportive philosophy. Take the concept of a “good-enough mother.” You don’t have to be a perfect mother, just “good enough.” It’s of monumental importance, this allowing young mothers not to be perfect, to have a laid-back approach that’s not fraught with anxiety. The times, they are a-changing.
I believe that if religion gives someone who is in extreme pain some relief it's a good thing and I am careful not to let my beliefs interfere with theirs. Whatever works to give them hope. It is not necessary for me to interfere but to listen and nod.. and believe what I believe.
William James, the father of pragmatism, would agree. If believing something helps you live, don’t worry about objective evidence. Subjective “pragmatic evidence” is good enough. (I don’t know if James held the view that reason would always reject religion; catholic apologists insist one must “rise above reason.”)
My mother knew my intense nature and warned me not to argue about religion with people who needed it. “You never know,” she said, “perhaps religion is what keeps that person from suicide.”
Milosz, who was an alcoholic, asks in a late poem (“Prayer”):
What sort of adorer of Majesty am I,
If I consider religion religion good only for the weak like myself?
~ and elsewhere in the same poem:
. . . when out of pity for others I begged a miracle,
The sky and the earth were silent, as always.
It’s more difficult to cling to faith in the face of that silence, but a great emotional need will somehow find an answer. For one thing, we have coincidences and an ability to see patterns and create narratives.
Christianity began as the religion of the oppressed. It should be no surprise that as it declines and draws to an end, it should became mainly the religion of the oppressed again.
FALLING INTO LIFE
My vessel of belief shattered after years of observing minute cracks spreading over its surface. Perhaps the final tap (a gentle one) that caused it to crumble came from a well-known theologian with whom I was corresponding. Responding to an epistemological question he wrote, "If Bach doesn't resonate, try Mozart." Really? I thought. Like I have an option? I could choose? It was a freeing notion that took years to fully appreciate. And “resonate” — what the hell did that mean? Give up my incessant quest for reasons, intellectual explanation, knowledge, certainty for something that simply resonated? It seemed and seems appropriate he used music to make his point. Subjective. Fluid.
Lately I've fallen pleasantly into life--I plant and harvest (great tomato crop this year), work on a trail through the forest, cut wood for winter, drive over an hour through the beautiful Columbia Gorge to work on a job, enjoy good food (actually tasting) ... For the first time I find no need to solve anything. I've been pleasantly numbed by life itself. This resonates with me.
Just reflecting on your thoughts and thinking about journeys and distances...
Glad to hear you are happy. Columbia Gorge is one of the most beautiful places in the world — it would be a sacrilege not to be happy.
I love hearing people’s stories of how, after decades of misery, they arrived at contentment. Needless to say, I identify. Everyone’s story is different, but there are certain central themes. Mozart or Bach? That reminds me that there are many “selves” — many competing neural networks, and we don’t need to give priority to the one that keeps going over the failures and suffering of the past. We are not that “self.” Other selves are available. I “chose” (this is done without any conscious cogitation) the one that was second most dominant: the hard-working, productive self.
The conscious part was my decision not to question if the work makes sense, especially if it leads anywhere, e.g. recognition. That’s when I became “posthumous” — thanks to being cornered by mortality, I realized that nothing I do is a “stepping stone” to something bigger and better, and that I’ll be rewarded only in the future (“your reward will be in heaven” — the same kind of thinking). The work really is its own reward.
Buddhism is also a salvationist religion, but the huge difference from Christianity is that its ideal is bliss NOW, not in the afterlife. It states we suffer because we want something, and because we are not fully in the present. We become more Buddhist with age. It’s interesting that ALL studies have found that older = happier. Older people want less and live in the present. It happens gradually and without effort, without necessarily the drama of the moment of enlightenment. I'm glad I had mine because it was an interesting experience, but I can see that there are ways to get there.
And past a certain point and to a limited extent, there are indeed options. We can choose a Bach self or a Mozart self, and happiness will take care of itself. Growing up in a mono-Catholic or mono-anything country is a disadvantage because it’s more difficult to become aware of options and the relativity of belief. You eat what you are given. You mean there is something other than meatloaf??
Plants are wonderful. It’s the power of beauty, the power of an external focus, but also something else: when we are nurturing a plant, we are nurturing ourselves. But even that may be too much cogitation — and I haven’t even mentioned cleaner air and negative ions. When I am in a place where there are lots of plants, I feel happy. And that is enough.
You said this particular blog is getting quite popular. Do you have any idea why that is?
I think it’s in part the drawing power of William James, and in part the startling phrase “once-born.” We’ve been brainwashed to believe that we need to be “twice-born.” Even William James condescends to the “once-born” — those who allegedly haven’t suffered enough and spent enough sleepless nights agonizing over their failures and/or sins. “Happy” and “shallow” are often thought to be synonyms, alas.
The notion that the “once-born” are the healthy souls, those who don’t need salvation, being already happy, was quite an eye-opener to me. Maybe that’s indeed the church’s biggest hush-hush secret: you don’t need to be saved. You already live in paradise. You only need to slow down, and then you will enjoy life much more.
You need to drop anxiety and trust that things will be fine even if you do lie down and rest. For an introvert, it helps enormously if the alpha male is removed so you can slow down and discover the best ways to live and work without disruption.
Do you mean meditation?
Not necessarily in the traditional sense of “sitting.” My salvation — alas, I started out as a sick soul — has been work. My gospel is “Don’t brood. Work.”
But you need to work in a way that doesn’t cause stress. That means working slowly, and not attempting too much at once. “We manage best when we manage small.” That compulsive greed to get as many things done as possible — we must stop and ask ourselves, “Why?” Most of the things we do are not important in any larger sense, but the doing itself can be enjoyed. Slowly sewing, rather than finishing the project as quickly as possible, only to rush into another project.
I think my compulsiveness developed partly mainly because of insecurity. Something in me acted as though there’d be no tomorrow, so it all needs to be done now. I realize that one day that will be it, literally no tomorrow — but by then brain function is different and there is a peaceful surrender. Right now I'm practicing peaceful surrender to the fact that there WILL be tomorrow — so not everything needs to be done today.
And the quality of whatever you do slowly improves. Haste really is waste.
And I don’t mean just creative work in the traditional meaning. All work can be creative to some degree. It’s wonderful to have the house to yourself, but if that’s not possible, make just one room beautiful.