Dead Poet Societies

“Deep is the well of the past, shall we not call it bottomless?
Indeed we should, if – in fact, perhaps only if – the past subjected to our remarks and inquires is solely that of humanity, of this enigmatic life-form that comprises our own naturally lusty and preternaturally wretched existence and whose mystery is quite understandably the alpha and omega of all our remarks and inquires, lending urgency and fire to all our speech, insistence to all our questions. And yet what happens is this: the deeper we delve and the farther we press and grope into the underworld of the past, the more totally unfathomable become those first foundations of humankind, of its history and civilization, for again and again they retreat farther into the bottomless depths, no matter to what extravagant lengths we may unreel our temporal plumb line…”
Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers

 

This post continues our discussion of religious child abuse. It also touches on the horrors of sexual abuse by priests as it is experienced by their victims. It may not be suitable for all readers.

There are two videos linked to this essay. The first shows the power of mytho-poetic imagery to serve life, the second shows how it can be used to destroy its joy. The second one contains explicit adult material and deals with what I consider the truly demonic, namely abuses around our sexual identity carried out in the name of god. It also hints at where healing might come from in these situations. Such material can trigger people who have spiritual abuse in their past but it can also aid their healing by giving voice to that which had been gagged. Please use wisdom in deciding if viewing this material is right for you. I do not share it lightly. We are discussing these things because, I believe, they are highly relevant to the social and spiritual aspects of our ecological crisis and the ongoing collapse of our integrity and infrastructure it entails.

Stories of hero quests are meant to inspire us. Tales of dragons slain and mountains climbed let us know that those who went before us were able to overcome the evils of their day and that they were able to obtain the vision of the mountaintop. Stories told to the young inspire them to find their own voice. The poets have cast a net of words around those elements of life that move us immediately and directly, bringing tears to our eyes, groans to our chests, and, at times, laughter midst amazement at it all. They act as guides for the in-between places where soul or psyche is found. It exists midway between the physicality of the body and its emotions, and the mercurial thoughts and intuitive insights our nervous systems host. Poetry uses words to evoke images and images to evoke words not of the mind but of the chest, words that echo as if resonating from the well of deep time.

The dreams of the heart, those that inspire us emotionally, are able to encompass their audacious desires only in tales of magic and miracles. Reason knows miracles are so highly improbable as to be, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Yet, when the heart talks it evidently needs these images drawn from the imagination since we find them in all times and in all places humans have been. This is how the heart guides reasoning, aiding it in where and how it should be applied. We have seen with the work of neuroscientist Damasio that emotion is necessary to reasoning well, providing the reason for reasoning. Or, as Pascal had it, “The heart has reasons reason does not know.” Faith is the idea that reason can justifiably trust in these things greater than itself.

Robin Williams’ masterpiece, The Fisher King, turns a compassionate artist’s eye to the issue of healing the mind traumatized by the violence of the modern world. Respecting the gravity of soul, it necessarily also respects the role of images in the mind of the victim, alienated from consensual reality, lost in their pain. The movie explores the dangers of mixing poetry and prose, that which is a metaphor and that which is literal and does so without losing sight of the ultimate healing such dangerous moves by the psyche are seeking by insisting on leading the personality towards wholeness. This earns Robin a special place in my book. I’d like to let him speak for the poets rightly understood. Here is a fine video that captures the work of the poets as a guide for the young, indeed, for all those who remain young at heart to the day they die. It is based on his work in Dead Poets Society.

“Carpe Diem, seize the day, gather your rose buds, while you may.”

This balance between the head and the heart, which poetry accentuates, is the essential challenge of a human life. In that balance we find our middle way, a way that gives the proper due to both our thoughts and our feelings. The head or the reasoning ability provides us with powerful truth seeking tools. We have the ability to recognize what data is relevant, how a theory can explain what we find, and how to clearly communicate those findings with others. Mathematics serves that clarity and allows us to make bridges and skyscrapers that do not fall down and all the other boons engineering provides. It also allows us to communicate the degree of our unknowing and confidence. This proves to be critical in both sciences and engineering as well as in decision making and the rational creation of public policy. The heart, on the other hand, gives us our arts. The theater, and today movies, can share stories with us that speak so intimately to our own unique needs and dreams that they become touchstones for the rest of our lives. This is what happens to people of faith with their core religious story. This is one of the powers of stories and has been understood in the West since at least the ancient Greeks. With the help of math we are able to build a bridge that will not fall down under the weight of cars and trucks. With the help of stories we build an inner bridge between the person we are today and the person we want to become tomorrow, one that will not fall down under the weight of daily disappointments and setbacks.

For many people in the past, and many alive today, the most important story of all in their lives are the ones that tell of their religious faith. Faith, broadly understood, is what the poets are concerned with. Poetry involves intellectual elements placed in service of a soul-task. Words are used to point beyond words to the actual experience of living unmediated by cognitive filters. Training in faith we slowly learn to become comfortable in the unknown and unknowable. We learn we need not fear that which will forever exceed the intellect alone. It is assuredly true that the unexamined life is not worth living, the philosophers correctly  insist that their love of wisdom is an essential ingredient of a life lived well. The poets, however, remind the philosophers that a life not lived fully has little material worth examining!

Here is the point. Carl Jung insisted that he found religious imagery in the dreams of his patients. He found that imagery was indispensible to the healing of the psyche. This means minds subjected to spiritual abuse suffer a confusion at a very profound level. Images of god, Self, light, angels, beauty and truth are normally bringers of peace, strengthening the mind of the dreamer for the tasks of maturity and responsibility the day brings. Kids with a healthy faith find that the religious imagery bubbling up in their dreams is supporting their efforts at learning and growing into their own unique selves. Kids who have suffered under the wickedness of spiritual abuse do not have this foundation on which to build a life. Nightmares dominate such kids night lives and the repression of them steals the energy they could of used to deal more skillfully with their day lives. For them all the imagery associated with religious thought has been marred, perverted from its life serving causes and turned into a death dealing one. The ideas of god, devil, heaven, hell, love, compassion, and on and on – all are no longer sources of strength but triggers for re-traumatizing. Spiritual abuse is a uniquely twisted form of abuse in the sense that to heal from trauma typically requires the strength found in a new, adult chosen faith. This is very hard for those who have been cut to the quick by the churches.

REASON – emotion
reason – EMOTION

In the Calculus and other such endeavors we shift our attention towards the reasoning end of the reason-emotion spectrum. Big reason, little emotion is as far into objectivity as we embodied beings reach. In myth and poetry our attention shifts towards the emotional end of the reason-emotion spectrum. Big emotion, little reason is as far into subjectivity as we embodied beings reach. Beauty and harmony lead the mathematician towards truth, these are the emotional elements playing their role. A logical consistency within the altered physics of a mythology remains as the rational element, giving coherence to the overall picture images.

The real environment in which a human being will live out every day of their lives consists of the rather mundane. Graveyards and gardens, toilets and supper, dirty dishes and mended fences are everywhere. There are moments, however, when it is all transformed and we are struck by awe unutterable. Tales of magic and miracles exist side by side with this human experience, capturing something of the wholeness evolved from this mix of the mundane and the numinous. The tales help us by clothing what it is like at times to experience our experiences, to be authentically human. Myth and poetry agree it feels like magic when we fall in love, that it feels like god heals us when we are comforted in the midst of our afflictions, it feels like we could fly over mountains, feed the hungry, and comfort all the afflicted when we are filled with the flowing powers of life. Myth and poetry are not interested in expressing absolutes, they point beyond themselves for their referents. We in the modern world have been taught to dismiss these referents because we are taught that how a person might feel about things is basically worthless. We are smart in so many ways, and yet we are astonishingly symbolically illiterate. There is something very, very real being expressed in these stories, something we could grasp no other way.

The abused are moving through this mundane world with a burden. They carry the effects of trauma in their bodies, an anchor of the truth about their own life stories and yet, before it is healed through compassionate acceptance, it also acts as the milestone by which they can drown. In sorrow. In confusion. In fear. Hurting people seek relief. There are not many life enhancing reliefs to be found in a culture dominated by the idea of keeping people in need of endless purchasing for acquiring status and self worth. The hurt who survive are able to find some immediate relief, be it in drugs, sex or strange religion, that at least lets them get through the long night. In these ways “they too can be ‘Heroes’, if just for one day.” That the immediate reliefs bring their own problems is just more of the complicated nature of abuse psychology. Without the immediate relief most of these victims would be worse off, they would be dead.

Healing involves addressing the burden. This involves facing terror, the Guardian on the Threshold that holds the “thought that dare not be thought, the feeling that dare not be felt.” Because the victim has been taught by their abuse some form of the “it’s for your own good” lie, they also believe, at some level, that they deserved whatever abuse they suffered. To face the terror involves seeing clearly they did not. One gives up fantasies of pure evil spawned by the supernaturally powerful devil of our stories, for the tragic truth that there are only people – and the things they do to one another. It is terrifying to look on the face of evil. But it is something the human being can survive.

Abuse is basically one single lesson, though it is taught in the different forms we see abuse taking: sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. That one lesson is that “I, great being that I am, is why the universe exists. You, little being that you are, exist only to serve my whims. Fail to please me and I will wipe you out.” Playing ventriloquist with jesus as your meat puppet doesn’t change things one bit.

What kind of home do you live in? The Logical Spectrum of Existence
evil creation by an evil god — neutral creation — good creation by a good god
H.P. Lovecraft’s Gnostic “piping idiot god” – ? – Bible’s “and god saw that it was good”

The abused need to learn that the universe that sick human beings taught them they live in is not the universe as it actually is. They have come to believe that existence is at its root one of unpredictable violence, where good and innocence is always victimized, man’s reasoning is powerless to make any real sense of an existence defined by paradox, and human emotions can only confuse the mind further by blinding it to the double binds it is forced to believe. They live in a world of madness, one created by an evil god: the view of the unhinged psyche. Healing cuts through this image of existence, delivers the victim from the hypnotic prison in which the abusers had placed their soul.

Most all forms of abuse are carried on by people who twist their own hearts and minds into convoluted rationalizations for their pain causing behavior. It is a rare human being that wants to be evil for its own sake, a very small percentage of the race is so fully psychopathic. Most evil is committed by people who are quite convinced that what they are doing is, in some perverted way, serving the greater good. Something gets twisted along the way, turned upside down, turned the wrong way around. Now I happen to think that as part of the healing process the wounds from these very acts of evil are turned into strengths of character, though never fully losing their poisonous sting. When healing happens, IF healing happens, this transformation is something the divine, the Self, god or one’s angel brings about. This is what Carl Jung was at pains to point out, that something greater than ego is involved, that there is a reality to the psychological realm where demons and angels dwell. Healing is not something human beings have any right to count on. It does not give the abusive room to dismiss the full cruelty of their actions. Such healing, this placing of crowns where there had been scars, is not something that always happens. Many lives just stay messed up, viciously hurting themselves and others until the day some tragic death, at their own hand or another’s, finally brings them peace.

How did all this come about? How is it that the human mind can be so deformed that existence itself becomes too painful to bear? What is the root of this sickness of the soul? I think the root cause is reading myth and poetry literally. Those who do so betray the love and concern of our ancestors. We are not powerless in the face of this confusion, not by a long shot. A single rational thought can dynamite a whole edifice of confusion and lies. It doe not matter how colorful its facade might be painted or how tempting the seducers of false certainties might be. Once you know you know, you know. And there is no turning back.

Something like this one-way event happened when the sexual abuse scandal hit the Catholic church. It is not just that these things happened but it is in how they were covered up and allowed while the princes of the church were busy hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again. It seems to me that history is leading the West in the direction of St. Francis’ vision of a poor church mixed in with liberation theology’s witness to the truth that Amnesty International knows about empire and torture, all spiced with a repentant attitude of sackcloth and ashes. The Abomination of Desolation has been placed in the Holy of Holies. The central symbolic institution of the West for the last 2,000 years has been corrupted, or at least attacked, at its core. It is now The Next Day. If church spokesman in the future put up justifications for holy nuclear war, it will only be more fuel for the fire that has already been kindled.

We are left wondering what might be happening to the reality of these psychological symbols within all of us who inherited this mytho-poetic tradition. The reality of the psyche and the symbolism by which it feeds is involved in an earthquake within Christianity. That reality is not separate from the ecclesiastical institutions but not wholly subsumed in them either. They leak, as it were, into the public square. The United States is not alone in suffering strange politics due, at least in part, to reversals in religious symbolism. The scandals in Catholicism and the hardening of fundamentalism among the Evangelicals seen in the United States correspond to the earthquakes we see in the other monotheisms: the rigid political Zionization of Judaism and the appeal to violent Jihad among Muslims. Nor does the East escape the quake. We all live in societies inspired by dead poets.

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