Letter to the Young…

 

 

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One day, this world will break you

and when it does

you will never be ready

you will never be mended

and you will cease to believe;

in life,

love,

faith,

family,

god,

in everything,

although you may never admit it.

You will spend the rest of your days either in denial of the abyss at your center,

wearing a smile like paint poured out upon a sepulchre,

or

you will knowingly fall deeper into the squalor of existence,

embracing the black malevolence of your being,

casting light upon the cosmic joke of human consciousness,

gnashing your teeth at each new passing day,

cursing the insistence of the future,

and hoping for the sweet oblivion of pure nothingness.

But,

either way

you will never be whole,

you will never be well,

never at peace,

never at rest,

never at ease.

Selah.

 

 

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Shoegazer

I was going though some of my older photos and I came across this little nugget. I began to recognize a pattern throughout my photographic work. I take quite a number of photos of shoes, either mine or others, and or other objects on the ground. Generally speaking, it seems the implicit intent of my work is to cast the eye downward. This makes perfect sense from a psychoanalytic perspective, given my ongoing battle with clinical depression and my overall melancholic disposition. This is a testament to my temperament. My eyes are constantly averted. My vision sits low, head-down. My world view is quite literally bottom-up, my frame of reference beginning on the ground. In essence, then, my work is a glimpse of the world through the black bile eyes of the morose, the emotionally impaired, the damaged, the depressed, the unwell, the mentally unbalanced, the mind of melancolia, the sight of sadness…

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Beggar at the Gates

 

I dance with my despair
I kiss my suffering mouth to mouth
Lips wet with saliva and tears
sweat and strain

Do not let my stutter depart from me

I limp because I have wrestled
I have striven with “God” and men and have prevailed
Disjointed and crippled, I am whole

I am laughing sweetly with my anguish
Ever tasting this supple sorrow
I do not seek to numb the pain

I waltz with my sadness
never knowing who leads yet still we sway

I have made love to my wretchedness, never knowing who recedes yet here we lay

Shrouded in the darkness of a melancholy joy
May I rise, take up this bed and walk away
But, in my lameness may I remain

Smokestack

I just recently finished reading a book my therapist ‘prescribed’ to me; Healing Your Emotional SelfI won’t go into too much regarding its content here. I’m planning on writing a post regarding a few thoughts, considerations, and critiques of what I found in the text. Overall, however, I though the book was helpful and informative. As I was looking through my highlights and notes, I came across this short poem that I wrote in response to a mirror therapy exercise, an activity the book’s author is a prominent advocate of. In this particular exercise I was instructed to simply look and the mirror and describe what my face and body revealed. This is what I saw. I thought it might be good to share it. Let me know what you think.

 

I am tired,
worn,
exhausted,
weathered,
aged beyond my years,
weighed down,
hopeless.
I am a shell without occupancy,
empty,
hollow,
a fireplace without flame,
dark and foreboding,
full of nothing but soot and disuse…

Melancholy as Mitzvot

Last semester I took a course in Modern & Contemporary Judaism. I found it to be intriguing and enlightening. As someone who has devoted a considerable amount of my own personal studies to understanding the specificity of  the Jewish faith, I relished the opportunity to engage with it in an academic format. Below you’ll find a short paper I wrote for the class exploring the ways in which Judaism both embraces and welcomes ‘melancholy’ within the very fabric of its praxis. Enjoy!

In October of 2010 the Dalai Lama, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr all came together to join in a public conversation, dialogue, and debate surrounding the meaning of happiness (you can find the audio and transcript here). In the course of the evenings proceedings a question was posed to Rabbi Sacks in which it was pointed out that large portions of the Hebrew Bible, including sections such as Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, etc., “really wallow in sadness and suffering and anger” (Tippett). Rabbi Sacks responded by stating:

It is true that if you read the Jewish literature and you read Jewish history, happiness is not the first word that comes to mind. We do degrees in misery, post-graduate angst, and advanced guilt… And yet somehow or other when all of that is at an end, we get together and we celebrate…And that to me is how I have always defined my faith as a Jew (Sacks).

Sacks elaborated saying,

The definition of a Jew, Israel, is, as it says in Genesis 34, one who struggles, wrestles, with God and with humanity and prevails. And Jacob says something very profound to the angel. He says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And that I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it (Sacks).

This is truly something quite profound and unique within the Jewish tradition. In an age of consumeristic, satisfaction driven, seeker-sensitive culture, most Western centered religions have promoted themselves as sources of comfort, consolation, satisfaction, joy, and happiness. Judaism, however, rather than seeking to overcome or subdue the angst and anxiety that is inherent within the human existential condition, has contrarily allotted ample room within its rituals, practices, and observances to these dark and pensive moods, choosing instead to embrace and to more deeply abide within sorrow, suffering, mourning, and grief.

It seems that from the abstinences of Yom Kippur, to the extensive mournful customs and sorrowful liturgy marking the Ninth of Av, to the deeply imbedded observance of sitting Shiva, Judaism has constantly seen “melancholy [as] an authentic response (‘positive’) to accurate perceptions of life experiences that are incongruous” (Frost, 82). Rather than seeking merely to cope by partializing experience, or by dimensioning expectations in order to achieve a homeostatic state of balance and equilibrium, the Jewish faith has instead sought to “learn to live with the gaps between one’s expectations and what life actually offers,” seeing “incongruity as intrinsic to the human condition” and “melancholy as an authentic, positive response to these conditions” (82). Thus, it should be noted that this “religious melancholy is not considered an answer, a solution, either to incongruity in general or to questions without answers in particular” (83). The Jew is one who does not see tension, ambiguity, or contradiction as problems to be solved, incongruity requiring resolution, but instead sees them as mysterious perplexities to be experienced and inhabited. “[M]elancholy is a response to such conditions – an active, lively response that, given the alternative safe and comfortable illusion, is freely chosen by the [Jew]” (Frost, 83). Even more so, within Jewish praxis, it is “a highly creative and visionary response to the most terrible events to which human beings can submit each other” (Dudley, 89).

Through these Judaic rituals and observances, one purposefully and decidedly submits themselves to the trauma and solemnity of authentic human existence, sacrificing comfort and consolation in exchange for the authenticity of grief and distress, fully living within “the gap between the promise and the real” (88). It seems then that by expressing a “willingness to experience incongruity” and by “refusing to erect premature arbitrary boundaries regarding life possibilities” these practices allow “one…to experience a wider swath of life” and to “approach life in a state of perceptual openness” (Frost, 83).

In contrast to the absolutist answers offered by the claims of many other religions, Jewish practice avoids such finality and totalizing notions. Embracing darkness and melancholy in ritual and observance, word and deed, comes with it the understanding made clear by Elie Wiesel:

All ready-made answers, all seemingly unalterable certainties serve only to provide good conscience to those who like to sleep and live peaceably. To avoid spending a life-time tracking down truth, one pretends to have found it (239).

Works Cited

Dudley, Michael. “Melancholy or Depression, Sacred or Secular?” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2.2 (1992): 87-99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

Frost, Christopher. “Melancholy as an Alternative to the Psychological Label of Depression.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2.2 (1992): 71-85. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

Dalai Lama, Seyyed Hossein, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “Pursuing Happiness.” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Being. American Public Radio, 28 Oct. 2010. MP3 file.

Wiesel, Elie. Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Print.

Christian Consumerism

Annie Leonard makes clear in The Story of Stuff that “Our primary identity has become that of being consumers – not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but of consumers. We shop and shop and shop” (Leonard, Priggen, & Fox, 2007). Certainly today’s mass media, mass marketing, and mass producing endeavors of the supermarket and megastore have captivated both our focus and our funds. They have tapped into what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp “seeking” (Glei, 2010). Emily Yoffe, in her article entitled “Seeking,” writes that this behavior is the ultimate “mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world” (Yoffe, 2009). Yoffe continues,
 
For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs…[H]umans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones…[W]hen we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.
 
The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits ‘promote states of eagerness and directed purpose…It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused (Yoffe, 2009).
 
In keeping with the movements and methods of a consumeristic society, religious institutions, themselves, have begun to adopt these capacities, all too willing to provide the “world of ideas” through which to “divine meaning” in an effort to “promote eagerness and directed purpose” in both its present and potential members. In other words, in many cases, the religious experience has become just one more commodity to be sought, bought, and sold. The dominating religions, denominations, communities, and organizations have become a kind of “brand” eliciting a type of “brand-recognition” to which one will prefer over another. Membership then becomes a semblance of “brand-loyalty.” As a result religious communities have adopted similar marketing models targeting their desired demographics. This, I think, is precisely why many churches have self-titled themselves as “seeker-sensitive.”
 
One quickly thinks of the empire building efforts of many in Evangelical Christianity. In these instances the pastors of the growing number of “mega-churches” have become equal parts media mogul and corporate CEO. As a result a religious industrial machine is created; in which constant capital must be poured into in order to keep the wheels of industry continuingly moving and producing, and will seek to do so via targeted membership who will enable the means of the organization. “[T]elevangelists can fill a stadium at the same rate as a rock star and theme park can sell tickets to the Holy Land, organized religion has in many ways put a price tag on salvation” (Christman, 2011). Those heavily inundated by this type of economic ideology will see the magnitude of numbers in the way of attendance and contribution as a sign of God’s endorsement or favor.
 
However, many of lower socio-economic statuses are disenchanted by this vision of religion. They can no longer relate to these organizations, and thus, seek to form a congregation of greater similarity, and this is precisely why many sects form. The sect members will then often condemn and forbid actions or appearances reminiscent of the overindulgent system they cry out against. Yet, as increased social mobility occurs within the membership, many will become more loose or lenient with these prohibitions or will leave altogether.
 
Just as a total separation of church and state is nearly impossibly, so the separation of religion and economics is next to an unimaginable possibility. Whether a religious institution chooses to operate upon a business model more closely resembling that of a corporation or chooses to be a more socially engaging and justice orientated organization of community outreach and grassroots activity, power, water, and lights must still be paid. Even if not at the center of a religious community, economics is a necessary evil in keeping the organization in operation. It takes money to stay in motion, the most important question that remains is then will the religious community act in fiscal responsibility, maintaining a basis inclusivity and effectuality, concerning itself first and foremost with the well-being of its members over that which is monetary, or will seek to monopolize the market in an effort to sell God?
 
 
Christman, C. (2011). Selling God. [DVD]. USA: Breaking Glass Pictures.
 
 
 
Leonard, A. (Writer), Priggen, E. (Producer), & Fox, L. (Director). (2007). The story of stuff. [DVD]. USA: Free Range Studios.
 

The Violence of Humility

One of the classes I’ve been taking this semester as part of my Undergraduate program in Religion is “Myth and Ritual.” This class has been positively awash with lively discussion. As part of our multicultural and multiregional exploration of the role, place, significance, and meaning of societal myth we recently read and examined an African fertility myth belonging to the Fon tribe entitled “The Quarrel between Sagbata and Sogbo.”
This myth recounts the rivalry of two sibling deities, Sagbata and Sogbo, both sons of the Great Creator Goddess Mawu. Mawu, having stepped aside from her reign, enlists her sons to be co-rulers of the Universe; yet, the relationship between the two brothers is marked by tension and tumult. As each refuses to cooperate with the other they bitterly part ways. Sagbata, the oldest brother, decides to descend to earth and live amongst humankind while Sogbo remains a tenet of the sky. Sogbo, after having gained more power and the allegiance the other sky deities and still angry with his brother, ceases all rain from falling to earth thus, inflicted a three year draught upon the land and all its inhabitants. Having seen the immense devastation caused by this draught Sagbata, decides to cede to the rule of Sogbo and Sagbata gives Sogbo his inherited portion of universal control and power, in return for rain and the restoration of life to the earth, its creatures, and its people. Sogbo accepts, sends reign, and the two brothers are then reunited in friendship.
In the classroom discussion that followed this reading I suggested that this story is illustrative of the World healing power of humility. One of my classmates rightfully refuted this claim as only one of the brothers, Sagbata, exhibited a decided enactment of humilitude.
This is an excellent point and I can certainly see where the confusion arises in the story of Sagbata and Sogbo, especially in reference to humility, being that only one of the two seems to actually learn the lesson. Yet, I think, in a way, that is part of the lesson in and of itself. Often those situations where the acts of the humble are most detrimentally necessitated, humility is neither reciprocal nor participatory. It is the willful diminishment of oneself, it is self-sacrificial. Had Sagbata waited for a mutual expression of humility the whole of the created order would have surely broken down beyond repair before either party would have budged. Thus, through the solitary act of Sagbata lowering himself, the doors to restoration, both ecologically and familial, are flung open wide, in ways that they would have never been otherwise.

This reminds me of the endeavors of figures such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Each decisively “turned the other cheek” and refused to return violence with more violence. Yet, these are not acts of weakness; on the contrary, these are the most powerful acts possible. These acts do more violence to the structures of power than the most malicious acts of violence the power structures can do to others. Humility is the ultimate negating act. It turns the entire systems of power upside down.

Oppressive and vengeful acts of violence are not acts of power rather they are acts of absolute impotence. It is only through the forced subjugation of a victim that the oppressor can garner power. The oppressor is ultimately weak and displays his weakness and hunger for power through his insistence of violent pursuits, as he can only attain power by robbing the victim of power. Humility on the other hand, is the game changer; it is the wrench in the gears of this system. The would be victim denies participation in this ritual by refusing to be robbed of his power, instead he rather willfully and freely offers it to the would be oppressor. By doing this the victim refuses to play the part of the victim and the potentially oppressed does not lose his power but more fully attains and inhabits it. Thus, as there is no victim, the oppressor can no longer fulfill his role as the oppressor and is forced to more fully inhabit his weakness