Thursday, June 26, 2014


A small stack of unevenly-cut cardstock sits next to the mirror on my dresser where I prepare for the day. I glance down and notice the scrawls for the first time this morning. With a quick movement, I slip them into my pocket, finger the worn edges, and make a mental note to pull them out later, anticipating a probable hour of need.

My soul is a forgetful creature. You would think that out-and-out revelation would have more staying power, those brief but holy flashes when I see life clear and pure. This is good. That is true. This is the way, walk in it. Monumental moments, and yet even half a day later, the glimpse has been forgotten in the swirl and eddy of a million synapses since. We manage to pack a delicious, nourishing lunch most days so we don't end up standing in front of the vending machine with a forlorn dollar bill contemplating candy bars. But when it comes to our heart-hunger, somehow we are not always as purposeful.

Maybe we ought to construct phylacteries, or some other kind of storage unit of reality whereby written language comes to the rescue. The Jewish people understood that you could carry transformative words through memory and other devices. There, on your forehead and on your doorposts, they would remind you of the past, define your actions and your affections, and prepare you for the future. And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt. Bundle up some truth and take it with you today; you're going to need it something desperate. Tell your heart to tell your heart all that it has learned. Learn to talk to yourself.

Hannah Arendt 
Nowhere is this idea more plain to me lately than in the writings of Hannah Arendt, one of the most significant thinkers of the late 20th century. The recent film on her life is a good introduction to some of her ideas, and the film itself cleverly demonstrates how she lived them out. How, you might ask, do you dramatize thinking? Well, let's just say I lost count of how many scenes featured the woman reclining on a sofa, lighting up a cigarette, and staring pensively into the air. (Another variation was sitting in front of the typewriter, lighting up a cigarette, and staring pensively into the air.) At first, I grew restive with the repetition. I was just about ready to divide my attention (ironically) with another open window on my laptop when the obvious occurred to me. Here was a picture of a life devoted to focused attention, and one's ability to engage in a particular level of mental activity, according to her, determined one's ethical fate.

From what I can gather, Arendt claimed that a human being must have a inner dialogue between self and self in order to remain a morally-conscious person. People who have forfeited that conversation are no longer self-reflective, which she believed made humans actually unable to make ethical decisions. Her primary example of this was Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi S.S. guard who was tried for his war crimes in the 1960s. His banal repetition of the "reasons" for his actions during his trial made it clear to her that he in fact had no reason, or reasoning, of his own. In other words, we are capable of great evil when we give over active, personal thinking to a passive inhalation of received ideas. Thinking is what makes us human.

Adolf Eichmann
It may be that we are not in danger of blindly following a regime like Eichmann. (Or perhaps we are closer than we realize.) But regardless, I have noticed personally that subconscious language is highly formative. Without fail, there is an inner conversation churning and humming in the background, whether I'm paying active attention to it or not. And it is in the seasons where I do not take time away from the feverish pitch of the day to examine those thoughts that I become most controlled by them. A subtle tyrant quietly erodes my freedoms and slowly feeds me the slightest of lies until I am mastered by the most outrageous and otherwise unbelievable beliefs. In these instances, I realize my Eichmann-like vulnerability.

How can this pattern be disrupted? It is tempting to feel the strength of this inner tyranny and become fearful. We see the effect that that the "matrix" has on us. We panic and shun the influence of hubbub and buzz; pull the plug on our computers and go off the grid. We close all gates to our eyes and ears that we can think of. Heavens, how did that awful stuff get in there? And there is some very real benefit to disengaging, regrouping, and contemplating things from a distance. Maybe this is what Hannah was doing behind her ubiquitous cigarette. It certainly seems to be the life Wendell Berry proposes when he writes: So friends, do something everyday / That does not compute. This may mean I decide to quit Facebook for three years, or it may mean I pause for two minutes in the middle of a task-ridden day to re-read the little card in my pocket and pray. However it looks, stepping back is vital to one's personal and our collective well-being.

But what happens next? How do we enter again, flip open the typewriter or computer, and remain mindful? Certain branches of all religious traditions have encouraged their followers to live apart: the contemplatives, the mystics, the separatists. These have their place in church history, to my way of thinking. But for most of us, avoidance of "the world" can also become an excuse to sidestep hard questions. The abnegation of engagement is particularly prevalent in my generation in regards to religion and politics (sinners of whom I am chief). Because the public square has become so sharply polemical, we think it justifiable - if not a matter of survival -  to mostly disengage.

I ache for a better way, one that entertains cultural questions while eschewing cultural brainwashing. Can we learn a kind of graceful rhythm by which we retreat and return with refreshed vision, able to see this blessed, dear God-created world for what it is and ought to be? How does one tend that essential, inner conversation while still remaining connected to the outside? In short, how do you rightly love the world? 

1 comment:

Joyfulartist said...

Deep thoughts, very challenging indeed!