Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Me and My Shadow

Our mental business is carried on much in the same way as the business of the state: a great deal of hard work is done by agents who are not acknowledged. George Eliot, Adam Bede

While a visitor in a church other than my own, I had a strong negative reaction to one of the lay ministers—some confluence of mannerisms and appearance just grated on my nerves to the point where I couldn’t stop watching this person, in the same way that one will continually pester a cold sore.

It being apparently a good morning, I was able to self-transcend enough to notice not only the irritating object, but also my own irritation. Isn’t that interesting, I thought; now why should I respond so negatively to this person?

Trying to run my thought process to ground, I began to catalog all the things about the person that annoyed me, and ask myself why I was so annoyed at each one. This strategy backfired. In no time, I had gone from being conscious of an irritant within my field of awareness to being entirely subsumed by irritation: I had absolutely nothing on my mind but how much this person annoyed me, and a laundry list of self-justifying reasons for being annoyed.

Then I remembered something that Martin Laird pointed out in his book, Into the Silent Land: when Satan was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus didn’t debate with him; he didn’t allow himself to be hooked. Instead, he simply met each temptation with an appropriate quotation from scripture. “It is written…,” he said, then shut up, never giving the tempter the time of day.

(I’ll interrupt myself here to share the only thing I ever learned in my brief career as a vacuum cleaner salesman: “once you have stated your case, the next person to talk loses.” When you are arguing with someone—a sales clerk or petty official, say—make your point and then absolutely clam up. It’s difficult, but often works; the tension produced by the silence just becomes too much, and your adversary will begin to babble in order to break it. Then you win.)

So I tried Jesus’ stratagem; abandoning my bogus self-examination about why this person rubbed me the wrong way, I simply told myself what God told Samuel in 1 Kings: “You see not as God sees, but as mortals see; for you look at outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.” I had to repeat this a few times over the course of the service, but it worked: I set aside my involuntary response and put my attention where it was supposed to be.

(The fact that this person turned out, in later conversation, to actually be a jerk is immaterial. I suppose. It’s not as though obsessing about the offending mannerisms was doing any good. And anyway, maybe being a jerk is just one more layer of appearances between me and the heart that God looks on.)

Fifty years before Jung opened his practice, George Eliot put her finger on the problem: “unacknowledged agents” in our minds do stuff without our awareness or consent.

Now Jung attributed much of this stuff to what he called “the Shadow”—those aspects of our personalities which we reject and repress, and which undermine and sabotage us in a bid for self-expression. And Jung believed that, in banishing the unwanted aspects of ourselves into the unconscious, we cut ourselves off from our creativity and self-realization. Jungian psychologist and Episcopal priest John Sanford likened the Shadow to Jesus’ “treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44). Make friends with your Shadow, the pop-psyche mavens tell us--and why not? If some repressed aspect of my personality is forcing me to read political blogs all night instead of going to bed so I won’t be irascible toward my children the next day, I’m willing to take that as a sign that some fundamental change in my life is called for.

But sometimes the Shadow just needs to pipe down. The Desert Fathers externalized their troublesome inner promptings as demons, and oriented much of their lives and practice toward silencing them—and surely not every vicious or self-destructive drive is potentially redeeming. Sometimes evil thoughts are just evil.

Martha Graham counseled Agnes DeMille to keep open to the urges that motivate her. Well and good; the jungle is dark, but full of diamonds. But how do we distinguish between motivating urges that are potentially liberating, and those that are just plain bad? Or at any rate unhelpful? (“All things are lawful to me,” said Paul, “but not all things are useful.”) How can we tell the gifts of the Shadow from the Trojan Horse of the ego?

One thing I have heard before, but have only recently realized in my own experience, is that turning the attention from the object of one’s feelings toward the feelings themselves is a great disclosing tablet. When our whole field of awareness is filled up with the object, there is no room for awareness of self—the very reason, I suspect, that most of us “nurse our wrath to keep it warm” toward at least one person or situation: we don’t want to become self-aware on that score.

One evening I was at a motel desk with a friend, trying to get in touch with a mutual friend who was staying there and whom we had arranged to meet. Her room phone wasn’t working, and we were trying to get the desk clerk to somehow get a message to her—which, being more afraid of his employers than he was sympathetic to us, he refused to do. As we pressed him—OK, as I became angry--he became rude and dismissive.

Back in the car, my friend asked me why I so furious at this subaltern. As one reiterating the self-evident, I said, “Because he was rude to me!” “So what?” my friend asked.

And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Later, upon reflection, I realized that if someone is rude to me, it constitutes an implicit statement about my relative worth—and that at some level, I take that statement at face value. This person is, by being rude to me, implying that I deserve no better, which some part of me already believes, so in order to distract myself from that externally validated self-assessment, I become furious at the rude person.

Lesson 5 in A Course in Miracles says “I am never upset for the reason I think.” The ego does a bang-up job of directing the attention outward in order to avert the inward gaze. Maybe the key to discerning between the (potentially) liberating drives of the Shadow and the cramping, self-protective machinations of the ego lies somewhere in there. Maybe if I had the keenness to discern and the courage to follow my redemptive inner promptings, I would find myself happier and more self-aware--whereas getting caught up in ego chatter invariably makes me more miserable and more aware of other people, other things (or rather, of my thoughts and feelings about them.) Maybe these internal agents need to start carrying ID. Or maybe I’m just breathtakingly self-involved.

(Or all of the above. Once as I stood in line at a convenience store in St. Paul, I asked the clerk, “Are magazines becoming trashier and trashier, or am I just becoming a grumpy old fart?” “Well, sir,” she deadpanned, “both of those things could be true.”)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hide and Seek

“You say you seek God, but a ray of light doesn’t seek the sun; it’s coming from the sun...Because you don’t know that who you are is one with God, you believe all these labels about yourself: I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I’m a wretch, I’m a worm and no man, I’m a monk, I’m a nurse. These are all labels, clothing. They serve a purpose, but they are not who you are. To the extent that you believe these labels, you believe a lie, and you add anguish upon anguish. It’s what most of us do for most of our lives.” Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

The Altar Guild are after my daughter.

Last year, the cadre of parishioners--mostly elderly women--who oversee the linens, chalice, paten, altar book, candles, flowers and other arrangements for Communion at our church approached Allison and me about recruiting our then-five-year-old Clare to help out. Somehow, without our noticing, they had marked how meticulous Clare is, how attentive to the environment and interested in things being “just so.” We ultimately decided that, flattering as it was for them to ask, she was a little young to be committing Saturday mornings to helping out in the sacristy. I still wonder if we made the right decision about that. But the incident got me thinking about how much we rely on the old ladies to keep things running.

Many years ago, I remember sitting in the park in Lancaster, watching a group of elderly women volunteers tending the flowerbeds. And young and callow as I was, the question still forced itself upon me: who is going to take care of things when the old ladies are gone?

I’ve been thinking about this because I am in a golden position to be a helper-out. Having quit my job with no immediate prospects in view, I could simply make up my mind to being one of those unsung people who make things keep happening. I could devote myself to my home and family, working on my music and volunteering. Under any kind of rational scrutiny, this course emerges as a true win-win. But here are the two big barriers I face:

1) Most of my friends are not in a position to give up their jobs and devote themselves to pursuing a combination of parenting, creative work and good-doing. It seems ridiculous not to be stoked red-hot for such an option, but there it is: I feel guilty.

2) The extent to which one can be utterly mistaken about oneself is astonishing. The realization that one has altogether bought into a value system which one has always believed oneself to reject takes some serious adjusting-to. But I cannot escape the tinge of shame that comes with not being gainfully employed and living on my wife’s salary. I thought I was above that sort of thing, but apparently not.

Let there be no misunderstanding: I have friends who have given up jobs to be stay-at-home dads, and I have cheered them on. (Of course, during the most demanding time of babyhood, the girls were in daycare while I taught, so I can’t claim full Mr. Mom credit in any case.) And I have crusaded against the insidious fallacy that only work for which one is paid has any value. But something far deeper down in my makeup than belief chafes at not bringing in any money, at not “advancing” in my career, at not “using” that expensive Ph.D. And unfortunately, I’m not any better than anybody else at considering the lilies.

The fact is, I don’t really have very much faith. Or at least, not the important kind—and here is another area in which my reality is discontinuous with my professed positions. I have always said that belief in is more valuable than belief that. One can believe that God lived a human life and died a human death in Jesus of Nazareth, and give reasons for it; one can accept as true a certain constellation of factual statements about a thing and give one’s rational assent to them. That’s what doctrine is all about. And I do, more or less. But I’ve long believed that doctrinal/creedal belief—faith as assent--is less important that faith as trust. If I say, “I believe in you,” that isn’t shorthand for a list of factual statements about you to which I subscribe—it means I trust in you, I rely on you: I have faith in you.

And I don’t.

I’m too much of a control freak; it is very important that I be on top of things, that I be moving myself forward and leaving nothing to chance. Which is--if only by the measure of results, if nothing else--preposterous.

Of course, I have matured a little over the years in this respect. For instance, although I have never gambled, I fully understand the addictive quality of it, because I used to be addicted to applying for things. Every competition, call for scores, grant or any other opportunity that came along, I had to apply for it, because the one I didn’t apply for just might be the one I would have won. Just one more and I’ll quit.

I don’t do that any more; the constriction of time and resources that comes with parenthood, along with enough ding letters to paper the living room, have taught me the folly of blindside applying-for. But one can’t really call that faith, any more than avoiding a two-by-four upside the head because one knows it will hurt.

So lacking faith in God, I find it hard to have faith that whatever my hand finds to do can have value simply because I do it with my might. I still feel like any time not spent getting ahead is stolen time. Man, if only I didn’t have this laundry to do, I could be working on yadda yadda yadda.

But even if one resolves to devote one’s life to worthwhile pursuits, how does one find the measure of worth? Is working on the parish podcast as worthwhile as taking food to the homeless? Is writing letters for Amnesty as worthwhile as visiting the sick and imprisoned? Is my personal growth as important as making a measurable impact on the world? How much time can one take from volunteering and give over to reading and studying and writing music before one ceases to be the salt of the earth and becomes a privileged nabob? Don’t I have to actually retire from a job before I’ve earned the right to work in the garden during the workday? Behaving like a retired person at 45 smacks of failure, and carries a frightening presentiment of reaching retirement age without anything to retire from.

Now, wise people have said since forever that the most important work is the work that needs doing here and now.

There are some who are really the salt of the earth, who work for work’s sake, who do not care for name or fame or even to go to heaven…a man who can work for five days, or even five minutes, without any selfish motive whatever, without thinking of the future, of heaven, of punishment, or anything of the kind, has in him the capacity to become a powerful moral giant…If you want to do a great or a good work, do not trouble to think what the result will be…The only way to grow is to do the duty near at hand, and thus go on gathering strength till the highest state is reached….When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for the time being. (Vivekananda, Karma Yoga)

In fact, my malaise isn’t entirely attributable to what I am doing or not doing. Part of the discomfort—maybe the largest part—is that one’s identity becomes so bound up with what one does for a living. If I’m not working as a teacher, and I’m not precisely retired, and neither my composing nor performing are paying the bills, what account can I give of myself? What am I?

I knew a lifelong academic who was dying of cancer. She had held on for a long time to the possibility of returning to school, but when it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, she looked at me and said, “If I’m not a teacher, what am I?” I know I don’t want that to happen to me.

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. The official, paste-up Potemkin Village me—job, social roles, professional accomplishments, consumer preferences—is not the real me; its life is not my real life.

So maybe the way to grow and gather strength and find value in the work at hand is to disentangle identity from profession once for all. The Altar Guild ladies are doing good even if they never held a job, and neither the altar, nor the flowers in the park, nor the letters one writes nor the sandwiches one delivers are a badge of identity. Our life is hidden, and what we do is not who we are.

And if I can find the requisite faith, I'll find out if that's as true as all the wise people say it is.