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Forgiveness and Our Way Forward

Human beings are an unfinished species, both in the sense of having some rough edges and in having a potential that is not yet fully actualized. At different times in history our immaturity has pushed us to the ledge of suicide where we almost gave in to an either/or, all-or-nothing wager on destiny. Thankfully the better parts of ourselves pulled us back for a second thought.

Today we live in one of those times.

Most likely it isn’t disease, starvation, or over-population that will be our undoing. One thing that our growing population is forcing on us, however, is the challenge of learning how to get along and work together for the maximal benefit of all. As our living quarters become more crowded and the crowd becomes more diverse, we are confronted as never before by our differences. Strangers and outsiders have always threatened our neat, closed horizons of identity and mutual trust. We can get along with what we know, with others like ourselves. But with those we don’t know, or who have a different worldview and way of life from ours – what are we to do with them?

The great traditions of spiritual wisdom developed their distinctive visions around this challenge of getting along, particularly at the flashpoint of our differences. Whether it was the ideal of covenant fidelity introduced by Judaism, the universal compassion that awakened Siddhartha and became the central insight of Buddhism, the radical message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness that Jesus lifted into our collective consciousness, or the ideal of full surrender to the divine will beyond our constructs of god that brought Muhammad to his knees – the initiating provocation in each case was a quest for the way of salvation, for a way that leads to genuine community.

Obviously I’m not using “salvation” in the popular sense, as a program of deliverance, escape, and everlasting security in the next life. The word literally refers to a process (spontaneous or gradual) whereby injury is healed, health is restored, division is repaired, hope is renewed, and wholeness is actualized.

If salvation in the history of religion has been mythically and metaphorically represented as being set free, made clean, pardoned from guilt, and saved from certain perdition, the deeper energizing concern has always been over the forces within us and between us that keep us out of paradise, locked up in our suffering, and tragically short of our higher ideal.

As long as human beings have been around we’ve lived in societies – from small clans and larger tribes, to neighborhoods and nation-states. And so, for that same period of time we have had to learn how to get along, work through our differences, and contribute creatively to the formation of genuine community.

I’ve used that term – genuine community – a few times now, so it demands some definition. What I mean by it is a certain qualitative and transformational shift that happens when individuals in partnership make an empathetic connection and experience a deeper communion. Out of this grows a shared intention, a cooperative spirit, and a common vision of their life together. In other words, community is not just a synonym for “assembly” or even “congregation, and it doesn’t just happen. Instead it must be created – cultivated, nurtured, fortified, and regularly renewed.

And that’s where forgiveness is important.

I should really say, that’s where forgiveness is essential, since without it a strained or broken relationship cannot heal and continue to grow. Let’s take a closer look at what happens when the bond of trust at the heart of a healthy partnership is ruptured. Or maybe the partnership was never healthy to begin with. How can you – we might as well make this personal – be an instrument of salvation where there presently is abuse, betrayal, misunderstanding, or estrangement? Although none of us is off the hook as perpetrators in causing harm to others, for now we will pretend that you are the victim.

Whenever you are injured, offended, or betrayed, you will notice – if, that is, you can manage a little introspection – that two impulses arise simultaneously in you. One is the impulse of anger: You didn’t deserve this, it’s not right, that other person is guilty and should pay the price for his or her sin. I’ll call this the vengeance impulse, and as it rises within you in reaction to what’s been done to you by that other person, your anger is preparing to fight back and get even.

The other impulse is fear, which I will call the avoidance impulse. You don’t want the hurt to happen again, so your survival strategy marks a quick departure and takes long detours to keep it from happening again. As long as you maintain your distance and avoid crossing paths with your enemy, you stand a chance of staying safe. Because getting even will likely provoke further assault and additional suffering, your fear might be regarded as the wiser of these two impulses. Just cut this person out of your life. Push him away, leave her behind. You deserve better.

The thing about vengeance and avoidance that you need to understand is that they don’t lead to community. In fact they are serious digressions from what I earlier called the way of salvation.

Getting even or running away actually destroys the conditions in which genuine community can flourish. Think about it. When has the retributive reflex, where vengeance “pays back” hurt for hurt, worked out to the satisfaction of both sides involved? The vengeance impulse will wait for its opportunity – whether it’s tomorrow, next year, or three generations from now. The score will be settled: that’s just the way vengeance works. And running away or hiding out? How can individuals learn to live in community if they are living in separation?

This is the question that Jesus pondered. For our future to be long, prosperous, and happy, human beings can’t keep trading violence or seeking refuge from each other. We have to get along. We must learn how to create genuine community. And everyone needs to be included – the stranger, the outsider, especially our enemy. It was his focus on this particular relationship between enemies that inspired Jesus to understand, profess, and exemplify a new way.

This is the way of unconditional forgiveness. And even though his message got buried underneath centuries of Christian orthodoxy that took his movement in the exact opposite direction, this gospel of Jesus is finally being heard again.

Let’s come back to the very moment when your friend, or someone you trusted, became your enemy. No doubt, our most significant enemies are not those on the other side of the world, but who share our bread, our bed, and maybe even our genes. We opened ourselves up to them and made ourselves vulnerable. We trusted them, and they took advantage of our trust. There you are. What will you do next?

If you let your anger or your fear determine what you do next – whether you allow vengeance to make you into a combatant or avoidance into a defector – you will be giving power to your enemy, for the simple and straightforward reason that your identity in that moment is defined by what they did to you. Your attitude, character, and behavior will be decided in reaction. If you get even, it is in reaction. If you pull away, it is in reaction.

In either case, you are allowing your enemy to define you and limit your options. Fight back or get out. What other choice is there? This is where Jesus saw a third option.

Not as a reactor and giving power to your enemy, but by getting centered in your true nature as a creator. Picture that flashpoint immediately following the moment when the injury, offense, or betrayal takes place: let’s just call that “the space” between you and your enemy. As a creator, your challenge is to step into that space, stand your ground, and demonstrate love.

The ‘standing your ground’ part sounds as if you should be preparing for a fight, but that’s not what Jesus meant. When he counseled his disciples, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well” (Matthew 5:39) he was not suggesting that they should just submit themselves passively to violent treatment by others. For a right-handed assailant to slap your right cheek, he’d have to use the back of his hand. This is how an aggressor intends to humiliate you and put you in your place. In order to “turn the other cheek” you would have to straighten up again and face your assailant, asserting yourself as his equal.

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi found inspiration for his nonviolent resistance to British rule in this very passage from the teaching of Jesus. Later, Martin Luther King, Jr., himself a Baptist pastor who was additionally empowered by Gandhi’s more recent example, took it to the urban streets for the sake of race equality and human rights.

The message of Jesus was not a glorification of weakness and suffering; his was a gospel about power – specifically about the power of love.

So you step into that space, stand your ground, and then demonstrate love. I say “demonstrate” because chances are, you probably don’t feel much love for your enemy. He just hurt you; she just betrayed your trust. Your anger and fear are both very real. The point here is not that you should have gooey compassion and warm fuzzies towards the one who just “slapped you on the right cheek.” To demonstrate love is to act out the behaviors of love – even if you don’t feel very loving. What are those behaviors? You probably already know:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

In the spirit of fake it till you make it, demonstrating love in such ways eventually brings about two very interesting outcomes. First, your anger and fear dissolve away, and in their place arises a creative force that has no equal in all the universe. This force is the bond of partnership, community, and wholeness. A second outcome is that you will completely “disarm” your enemy. Where he was inwardly preparing for your vengeance or avoidance, your forgiveness removes the fuel for his fire, and it won’t be long before he loses all confidence in his power over you.

Forgiveness, then, starts in letting go (the literal meaning of the Greek word) of anger and fear. Jesus taught that it is really not about pardoning sin or absolving guilt. It may be the case that your enemy doesn’t even see the need to repent, and perhaps doesn’t care enough about you to make the effort. Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. He may need to be held accountable for the damage he’s done, but it won’t be about appeasing your anger. You may need to move out of the relationship and get on with life without her, but it won’t be as a victim of fear.

You are free, and that’s what matters. Genuine community is where individuals are learning to live together, in the freedom that love makes possible.

 

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Narratives of Terror and the Courage to Be

fear-chainThere are a lot of highly concerned and rational people today who are being held back from stepping out, speaking up, and taking the lead into a better future for our planet. It’s not exactly that someone else is holding them back, even though that’s how many would try to rationalize their current situation. We’d like to think there is someone over there who is keeping us in our frozen state, and that if only they will leave us alone we will be happy.

This turns out to be little more than an excuse, however, because the real cause of our paralysis is internal to ourselves, not out there somewhere else.

I propose the existence of something I’ll call “the fear chain,” which gets forged especially during those critical years of our early conditioning. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other handlers conspired in teaching us that certain things (and people) are dangerous – or potentially so. When we were very young we were cautioned against talking with strangers – along with playing in the street, running with scissors, and touching hot stoves. Such things were “dangerous,” and engaging with them would likely put us at significant risk.

Whether or not they consciously realized it, these influential adults were servo-mechanisms in our socialization, whereby the animal nature of our body was trained to behave according to the rules and rhythms of cultural life. Already programmed by millions of years of evolution, our body came equipped with some basic instincts, the most persistent of which is our drive for self-preservation.

In some form or fashion, all the other instincts – for attachment, food, shelter, sex, and reproductive success – are variations of our primal commitment to staying alive.

This drive to stay alive might also be characterized as an innate fear of death, of avoiding or seeking escape from anything that threatens survival – particularly predators, venom, toxins and tainted food; along with genuinely high-risk situations of exposure, violence, or unstable and precarious environments. While not as primal, perhaps, anything that represented the possibility of injury was linked to our fear of death, since, if serious enough, an injury might very well result in our loss of life.

In this linking fashion, numerous secondary associations were forged and anchored to our compulsive need to live – and not die.

Such association-by-linking should make you think of links in a chain, and this is exactly how I am proposing that the fear chain comes into existence. A primal (and mostly unconscious) fear of death got linked out to situations, objects, and other people who presented a risk of injury to us. And just like that, the primitive energy dedicated to staying alive was channeled into attitudes and behaviors of avoidance, suspicion, and self-defense. From that point on, the possibility of injury started to drive what we did, where we went, and with whom.

This concept of a fear chain suggests that the paralysis many people feel today is a complication of how we have been socialized – not just when we were children but even now under the tutelage of the politicians, preachers, journalists, and jihadists who spin our collective perceptions of reality. In this case, those deeper fears of injury and death get linked to the more normal experiences of loss.

Almost as much as we fear losing our lives or losing our minds, we dread the loss of wealth and opportunity, of time and freedom, of the way we were, or what we thought we could accomplish and become.

Socialization is largely dedicated to the project of constructing our identity – not what we are as human beings, but who we are as members of cultures, nations, classes, and tribes. This project is carried out through a process of forming attachments to the people, places, things, and beliefs that define us and form our horizon of meaning. Identity and attachment, then, are simply two sides of the same coin, with one (identity) the product of the other (attachment).

If we return to our natural and socially conditioned fear of injury, we can see how threats to our attachments amount to a kind of assault on our person. This is how the fear chain is forged with still another link: the (threatened or real) loss of an attachment is experienced as an injury to our identity, which anchors still farther down into our instinctual fear of death.

The stronger the attachment – that is, the more central it is to who (we think) we are – the more we fear losing it.

I wonder if the fragile construct of our identity – so many attachments, so much dependency – is what makes us so afraid of failure these days; of not being ‘successful’ or ‘good enough’. If we should try but fail, we run the risk of losing some aspect of who (we think) we are, suffering injury to our personal identity and (we irrationally believe) putting ourselves in peril of death itself. When a desired outcome isn’t achieved or we can’t get something perfect the first (or fiftieth) time, who we are and our place in the world is called into question. It’s best not to try, which allows us to keep the fantasy of identity safely above and ahead of us without the risk of being proven wrong.

Those who seek to generate an anxious urgency in us will typically use a narrative of terror to motivate us in the direction they want us to go. Such rhetoric is common from fundamentalist pulpits and during political campaigns, not to mention from those extremist wack jobs who seek to panic, disrupt, and destroy the life routines of innocent citizens. They are all united in their determination to unsettle us, tapping our amygdalas with messages of panic, outrage, and paralysis – the flight, fight and freeze responses hardwired into our brain circuitry.

For the relatively disengaged citizenry of liberal democracies, freezing is the majority option: we stop, stare, hold our breath and shake our heads, waiting for the stupor to pass before crawling back into our rut of life-as-usual.

My theory is that these narratives of terror are the sociocultural counterpart of the fear chain, one shaping the environment of our collective life and the other priming our nervous system for survival in ‘dangerous’ times. Even though a drive to survive and the fear of death may be instinctual, our chronic anxiety over losing ourselves – of losing who (we think) we are, along with the illusion of security and control that holds us together – is entirely conditioned and not natural at all.

Indeed, the intentional release of this bundle of nerves and dogmatic convictions is the Path of Liberation as taught in the wisdom traditions of higher culture.

The question remains as to how we might effectively transform our Age of Anxiety into a Kindom (sic) of Peace, where we love and honor the whole community of life on Earth. Years ago Paul Tillich coined “the courage to be” as the high calling of our human adventure. In defiance of the narratives of terror and breaking free of the fear chain, we can step out and speak up, investing our creative authority in the New Reality we want to see.

It will take more than just a few brave souls. And it will require that we move out of complacency, through protest, into a very different narrative.

 

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The Web of Passions

web-of-passionsHave you ever noticed how ‘devil’ has the word ‘evil’ inside it, and how ‘god’ and ‘good’ are so similar? It can’t be a pure coincidence that a devil and a god are personifications, respectively, of evil and good. Such mythological depictions of evil and good provide a way for us to connect our cultural narratives to the experience of reality as either against us or for us, as a theater of adversity or prosperity, as malevolent or benevolent.

Perhaps deepest down we orient ourselves in life according to whether what we require to live and flourish is actually there for us when we need it. Surely what we need most basically is to stay alive, so it would make sense if all other concerns and aspirations somehow revolve around the passions dedicated to our survival.

I’ll make an even finer distinction and suggest that while our physical safety is very close to the center of what we most need, finding the energy our bodies require to live and be healthy is the pivot of everything else. When it comes down to it, we will risk injury and even death for the sake of basic nutrition.

In this post I will propose a model for understanding the passions that drive our behavior, connect or divide us from each other, and motivate our constructions of meaning. Our ‘Web of Passions’ (as I’ll call it) underlies and energizes even the Matrix of Meaning, which I’ve explored elsewhere. I will make a case that our Web of Passions is the deeper inspiration behind our myths – those grand narratives and sacred stories that orient us in reality and provide guidance through life.

Despite the obvious and sometimes overwhelming complexity of our emotional experience, I will suggest that just ten passions make up the structure of this web. My diagram above illustrates them in their various correlations and proximity to the center, where a couplet of passions, desire and disgust, anchors the whole system.

Keeping in mind our basic concern over energy, nourishment, and health, desire can be appreciated as that passion which drives us toward and takes in what we need to live, while disgust drives us away from what is rotten, toxic, and not good for us. We might think of these as the ‘open’ (desire) and ‘closed’ (disgust) positions in our animal engagement with reality.

Desire and disgust, then, serve as the visceral – or, more exactly, the gastrointestinal – seat of our passions. All the other passions will differentiate and evolve out of this binary set of open/desire and closed/disgust.

And since opening to reality is the path to life, just as closing to it is the path to death, it’s not surprising that so many sacred myths and scientific theories of human origins identify an act of ingestion or the introduction of a novel food source (e.g., the fruit of a tree at the center of Eden or the shift by our hominid ancestors toward a carnivorous diet) as the precipitating event.

What I’m suggesting here is that desire and disgust together determine that ‘first taste’ of reality which originates and underlies our cultural distinctions of good and evil. Furthermore, because go(o)d and d(evil) are principal characters of sacred story, the primordial inspiration for myth-making, along with the art and theology of religion itself, may have unfolded out of this earliest experience of reality as delicious and desirable, or conversely as nauseous and disgusting.

Thus religious community gathers around feasts and festivals (food-centered celebrations), heaven is depicted as a banquet of saints and angels, while hell is imagined in all its slimy, putrid, and gut-retching detail. Purity codes of morality have roots in archaic distinctions between clean and unclean foods; ‘wholesome’, ‘healthy’, and ‘holy’ are derivations of the same root word.

From this point I’ll move pretty quickly through the Web of Passions, since their branching differentiation from the central binary set of desire and disgust is easy to follow. When we desire something, we say that we ‘love’ it; just as when we find something disgusting, we ‘hate’ it. Desire, through love, ramifies into joy (as the fulfillment of desire) on one hand, but into grief (as separation and bereavement) on the other. On the opposite side of the Web, disgust, through hate, bifurcates into anger (as the impulse to push the nasty thing away) on one hand, and into fear (as the panic to get away) on the other.

Further alchemy between grief (from the desire side) and anger (from the disgust side) generates envy, which, as we well know, fuses a longing for what another possesses or enjoys with resentment over the fact that we don’t. Opposite of envy is hope, produced from the odd marriage of joy and fear. The object of hope is, by definition, ‘hoped for’, which presumes its absence in some critical degree, as something we are looking forward to but is yet unrealized. Such anticipation is the joy in hope. But at the same time, we are also aware that what we hope for may not materialize or come to pass, an ambivalence that shows up in our common confusion over feeling ‘eager’ and feeling ‘anxious’ for something good to happen.

These ten passions – desire and disgust, love and hate, anger and fear, joy and grief, envy and hope – are the motivational forces in us that, as we say, make the world go ’round.

Our primal engagement with reality and uniquely human orientation in the universe; the stories we tell about ourselves and others; the sacred myths of ancient and modern cultures; the genesis and apocalypse of the world itself – while the structure of this elaborate human habitation is made up of words and their meanings, it is our passions that make it all meaningful.

As I suggested in Thoughts on the Apocalypse, the end of our world coincides with the breaking-open of awareness to the present mystery of reality, seeing through (and burning away) our illusions of meaning and stepping into our creative authority as makers of a new heaven and a new earth. Our Web of Passions doesn’t determine what kind of world that will be, though I’m confident that its inherent tensions and polarities will keep things interesting.

 

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Holding On and Letting Go

Anderson: “People of power and position are not the only ones who resist threats to a belief system; so do ordinary people who have internalized that belief system and take it to be absolute reality. The collapse of a belief system can be like the end of the world. Even those who are most oppressed by a belief system often fear the loss of it. People can literally cease to know who they are.”

One of the working threads in my current conversation regards (a) world as a human construction of meaning. There are as many “worlds” as there are mentally functioning human beings on this planet, and each individual migrates through numerous world-constructs in an average lifetime.

A world is not reality, but only a representation of reality. It is “made up” of our recurrent thoughts, persistent opinions, personal and family stories, as well as the overarching myths of our culture that can bridge many generations. Inside these enclosures we feel relatively secure, conserve an identity (or several identities), search for significance, and work out our purpose.

Another, but less inclusive term for what we are calling a world is belief system, which tends to take the discussion in a more cognitive direction. Beliefs are judgments and conclusions that nevertheless still require an emotional “boost” to cross any gaps in logic, insufficient evidence, or lack of direct experience. From the root-word meaning “to hold dear,” belief is less about knowledge than commitment.

We are emotionally attached to our judgments about reality. It gets even more complicated when we realize that many of our beliefs are nothing more than emotional commitments to other beliefs. We need them to be right, or else all hell might break loose. At least our worlds might fall apart, which is probably worse.

Anderson makes the point that “ordinary people,” as distinct from those in positions of power and privilege, are just as defensive of the worlds that make their lives meaningful. We could also add those of lesser fortune, who labor and strain under the weight of oppression. If you see yourself as a victim of evil-doing, at least you have an identity equipped with its relevant concerns, coping strategies, aspirations for freedom and “the good life,” along with your own retinue of fellow victims, enemy-oppressors, and occasional benefactors.

The fact is, we need our worlds just as much as our worlds need us to create them. Problems arise when we forget that we’re making it all up and start insisting on our world’s absolute truth. The postmodern discovery is that every world is a project (coming out of us), a construct (built and arranged around us), and a representation (of reality). While our amnesia regarding its origin and status as so much pretense may be adaptive to some degree, our insistence on the absolute truth of our belief systems is where all wars, most divorces, and many mental illnesses likely begin.

After the birth of what I am calling the “postmodern discovery,” many believed that the time had come for humanity to advance beyond the need for belief systems altogether. But that turned out to be just another emotional judgment (belief) of an emerging worldview – another phase in the evolution of worlds, despite the elevated self-consciousness of its perspective.

It seems to me that the real challenge is to occupy our worlds in humble awareness of their nature as fabricated, provisional and necessarily short-sighted views on reality. Psychologically we can’t live without them. But in the interest of our health and longevity as a species, and of the health of our planet, we need some combination of courage and compassion to reach through the emotionally charged boundaries that separate us from each other.

When our worlds do collapse – either completely as in the phase-transitions to a “new mind,” or only partially as we slowly outgrow earlier convictions – the experience can be nothing short of apocalyptic. What had provided security and a place to stand feels as if it is falling away from under our feet. What had provided us with orientation and a sense of direction suddenly comes to pieces above our heads.

Because who we are is so deeply implicated in how we see reality, the breakdown of our world amounts to a loss of identity.

Just as post-theism entails transcending or going beyond the objective existence of the mythological god, so too does this evolutionary moment require that we loosen up and let go of our egos as fixed identities. Such self-transcendence needs to happen if we have any hope of staying in touch with what’s really going on, with the really real, with reality.

Letting go is scary, and it’s not without risk that we release what has given us security for what might lead to fulfillment.

This is where the old guard is typically called in. Tribal authorities, holy tradition, sacred scriptures and the mythological god are all being summoned in  defense of our out-grown worlds. We don’t want to lose what we have, even though it has already lost much of its relevance to our daily lives. So we close our eyes and hunker down, and call it faith.

If we take the step from this fixed position, we want our foot to land on another fixed position – somewhere we can lean into and put our weight, something that’s stable and certain. But both stability and predictability are features of belief systems, not actual experience; of worlds, not reality.

The present mystery of reality is dynamic, and actual experience is much more fluid than our rigid belief systems can comfortably admit. And yet it’s a mark of both maturity and faith when we can climb to the edge of our worlds and leap from what we think we know, into what is beyond belief.

 

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