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  • Writer's pictureMr. B

Living Growth, Part Two

This episode continues with what it means to truly grow as a person and become an active agent, a protagonist, in the genuine progress of human society. Mr. B starts this episode with a discussion of what is required for an individual to begin "living" growth and then he provides listeners with two examples. One example, in story-form from the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, describes a modern age, ours, that has become less and less capable of authentic and meaningful action. The other, written by Christian Wiman, a professor of literature and religion at Yale University, recounts through his own experience what it might look like to move away from our closed minds and toward the opening of our hearts in the direction of truth.

Richard Rohr...

"{L]ife is characterized much more by exception and disorder than by total or perfect order. Life ... is both loss and renewal, death and resurrection, chaos and healing at the same time; life seems to be a collision of opposites..."

"Most of us were formed by Newtonian worldview in which everything had a clear cause and equal effect, what might be called an 'if-then' worldview. All causality was clear and defined. The truth we are now beginning to respect is that the universe seems to proceed through a web of causes ... producing ever-increasing diversity, multiplicity, dark holes, dark matter, death and rebirth, loss and renewal in different forms, and yes even violence, the continual breaking of the rules of 'reason'..."

"[T]he opposite of rational is not always irrational, but it can also be transrational or bigger than the rational mind can process; things like love, death, suffering, God, and infinity are transnational experiences.... The transnational has the capacity to keep us inside an open system and a larger horizon so that the soul, the heart, and the mind do not close down inside of small and constricted space. The merely rational mind is invariably dualistic, and divides the field of almost every moment between what it can presently understand and what it then deems 'wrong' or untrue. Because the rational mind cannot process love or suffering, for example, it tends to either avoid them, deny them, or blame somebody for them, when in fact they are the greatest spiritual teachers of al, if we but allow them."

Soren Kierkegaard...

"Our [modern] age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose."

"... it's ability, virtuosity and good sense consists in trying to reach a judgement and a decision without every going so far as action."

"It condition is that of a man who has only fallen asleep towards morning: first of all come great dreams, then a feeling of laziness, and finally a witty or clever excuse for remaining in bed."

"If the jewel which everyone desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while, closer in, the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he were drowned, they would make a god of him if he secured the prize. But in an age without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worth while to venture so far out. And in this way they would transform daring and enthusiasm into a feat of skill, so as to do something, for after all 'something must be done.' The crowds would go out to watch from a safe place, and with the eyes of connoisseurs appraise the accomplished skater who could skate almost to the very edge (i.e., as far as the ice was still safe and the danger had not yet begun) and then turn back. The most accomplished skater would manage to go out to the furthermost point and then perform a still more dangerous-looking run, so as to make the spectators hold their breath and say: 'Ye Gods! How mad; he is risking his life.' But look, and you will see that his skill was so astonishing that he managed to turn back just in time, while the ice was perfectly safe and there was still no danger. As at the theatre, the crowd would applaud and acclaim him, surge homeward with the heroic artist in their midst, to honor him with a magnificent banquet. For intelligence has got the upper hand to such an extent that it transforms the real task into an unreal trick and reality into a play. During the banquet admiration would reach its height. Now the proper relation between the admirer and the object of admiration is one in which the admirer is edified by the thought that he is a man like the hero, humbled by the thought that he is incapable of such great action, yet morally encouraged to emulate him according to his power; but where intelligence has got the upper hand the character of admiration is completely altered. Even at the height of the banquet, when the applause was loudest, the admiring guests would all have a shrewd notion that the action of the man who received all the honor was not really so extraordinary, and that only by chance was the gathering for him, since after all, with a little practice, every one could have done as much. Briefly, instead of being strengthened in their discernment and encouraged to do good, the guests would more probably go home with an even stronger predisposition to the most dangerous, if also the most respectable, of all diseases: to admire in public what is considered unimportant in private -- since everything is made into a joke."

Christian Wiman...

"I had arrived [at Washington and Lee University in Virginia] alone from far West Texas in my midnight-blue T-topped screaming-eagle Trans Am, which would hit a hundred and thirty miles an hour for anyone young enough and fool enough to do it, and which I sadly but promptly sold to pay for books, boxer shorts (I'd never seen such a thing before), booze, food.

That was always an urgency then: money. I delivered the Richmond Times-Dispatch on foot, 6:00 a.m., seven days a week. I worked in the university news office and in the dining hall, served as food manager for a fraternity, strung tennis rackets many evenings in the gym. In one particularly needy season, together with another student who had the means to be the bank (I was the muscle - or, more accurately, the nag), I ran a gambling line for professional football, posting our hieratic odds on the doors of dorms and fraternities and sitting all afternoon dipped in a sort of existential ant bed, feeling the stings of defeat in every other play. It was mortifying at times, but in a way of American intellectuals whose accomplishments are rooted in real dirt, I have made a badge of my embarrassments, and any shame of monetary or mental unfitness -- I vividly remember the vertiginous instant that a dean with a patrician mane and mien pointed out to me that my beloved Robert Ludlum books were not 'literature' -- has faded into an ironic attribute, like 'distressed' furniture."

"... A.R. Ammons, who for years sowed and savored his loneliness in lonely Ithaca. 'Keep Ithaka always in your mind,' wrote Constantin Cavafy, 'Arriving there is what you're destined for.' And he did, Ammons, keep that mythical Ithaka in his mind, which is to say in his poems, decade after decade of diaristic ramblings that are as flavorless as old oatmeal this morning, as null and undifferentiated as deep space -- then lit up suddenly by a meteoric masterpiece that must have surprised the workaday writer as much as it does the fatigued reader. It is heroic and it is pathetic, like the life of any real writer, I suppose, all the waste space one fills as one can, some with silence, which is often excruciating for the writer, some with noise, which passes the agony along to the reader. And all for what? Those moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity, of life and language riled to the one great charge...."

"I was a virgin when I heard Ammons read. A virgin of poetry readings, I mean, though the experience was probably more memorable and momentous than the other one. It occurred to me that Ammons might have been equally innocent, and equally confused, as ten minutes into his reading he suddenly stopped and said, 'You can't possibly be enjoying this,' then left the podium and sat back down in the front row. No one knew what to do. Some people protested from the pews - we were in a place that had pews - that they were in fact enjoying it, though the voices lacked conviction and he didn't budge. Finally the chair of the English Department (another mane, another mien) cajoled the poor poet into continuing. Ammons mumbled on for another fifteen minutes before the cold mortification of the modern poetry reading, and the beer-lacquered bafflement of press-ganged undergraduates, did him in. 'Enough,' he muttered finally, and thudded his colossal body down beside his wife like the death of faith itself."

"[T[here are moments ... when the movement away from one kind of silence -- the kind that keeps your soul suppressed -- is decisive. I remember sitting in an empty classroom at Washington and Lee late into the night, working on a poem instead of studying for an exam on international trade. I had spent three years as an economics major; endless afternoons in dead-aired classrooms from which I can't remember a thing in the world except that I wanted, wanted, wanted something so vague it might as well be money. By the time of my last class in the 'C-School' I was so hungry for meaning that everything was instantly allegorical -- the blind professor who taught international trade, the desk he clung to like a life raft, the random dog that sauntered into that third-floor classroom one afternoon as if he owned the place. He stopped right in front of my desk, turned around twice before taking a disconcertingly deliberate shit, then trotted lightly out like an ironic angel."

"Not that the true path was by any means clear. I still had twenty years to writhe on the high hook I knew only as Ambition. It's almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical -- how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc. -- but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers -- these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. 'The impeded stream is the one that sing.' (Wendell Berry)"

"When I left college and set out to be a poet I thought of nothing but writing a poem that would live forever. It seemed to me the only noble ambition, and its fumes were evident in my contempt for the lesser aims I sniffed out in other writers. It was, I suppose, a transparent attempt to replace the soul with the self -- for all the talk of the 'extinction of personality,' I suspect there is no artist who does not cling to the belief that something essential of himself inheres in his art -- and it was the first casualty of Christianity for me. People tend to think that Christians feel rescued from death, and perhaps some do (I don't), but first there comes the purge. Nothing survives, I suddenly realized. Dante, Virgil, even sweet Shakespeare, whose lines will last as long as there are eyes to read him, will one day find that there are no eyes to read him. As a species, we are a microscopic speck of existence, which, I have full faith, will one day thrive without us.

Still, abstract oblivion is a small shock as shocks go. When over lunch one day my friend and then poet laureate Donald Hall turned his Camel-blasted eighty-year-old Yeti decrepitude to me and said as casually as he bit into his burger, 'I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last,' I felt a galactic chill, as if my soul had chewed tinfoil. I was thirty-eight. It was the very inverse of a calling, an ex-post facto feeling of innocence, death's echo. In a flash I knew it was true, for both of us (this is no doubt part of what he was telling me), and yet the shock was not in that fact but in the nearly fifty years of further writings Don had piled on top of that revelation. 'Poetry abandoned me,' he writes in his little masterpiece Essays After Eighty, the compensatory prose of which is so spare and clear it seems inscribed on solitude itself. If there were any justice in the world, this book would be read by my great-great-great-granddaughter as she gets ready to die. But of course there is no justice in the world."

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