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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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A Father’s Heart

My present relationship with my father began a little more than two years ago, when we lost my mother. Since then we have talked on the phone morning and evening, just about every day. I suppose the combination of my being more temperamentally similar to my mother, and my father’s steady fulfillment of his family role as provider and disciplinarian, had made him seem more distant – not absent or uncaring, but more other, the counterpart to her enveloping nearness. Throughout my early life, he was like that promontory on the seacoast which provides a fixed point for the orientation of ships rising and falling on the waves.

I think there’s something archetypal about a father, as there is about a mother. Whereas she is the encompassing reality out of which we need to be delivered in our quest for identity, he represents in his otherness the ideal and future goal of what we are becoming. Our fathers might not exhibit the ethical character that inspires our own positive moral formation – although my father truly did – but simply in their otherness they stir our longing to stand out and be somebody. This might help explain why some young men who grow up without a positive role model in their fathers are at higher risk of becoming sociopaths and extremists.

Sometimes I wonder if my father’s role in our family system as the lawmaker and disciplinarian kept me from seeing the sentimental and softer side of him. Maybe his life story as a firstborn son and obligated farm hand, eventually serving as a church pastor in a denomination that was strongly patriarchal, shaped his own development away from the more tender and expressive virtues. No doubt, who we are and how we are in the world is to some extent determined by our situation in life and the responsibilities we are asked to shoulder. Even given that, I realized later on that how I saw my father was also limited by my own needs, ignorance, and insecurities.

Just last month my father’s only sibling and last remaining family member passed away, leaving him with the solitary task of sifting and sorting through legal documents, family memorabilia, and other of my uncle’s personal effects. He’s remarked more frequently of late how tired and ‘shaky’ he feels, driving back and forth from Michigan to Iowa and having to make decisions over the disposition of property and the family farm. He is struck at times by how little is holding him here anymore, after losing his parents, a son, his wife, friends along the way, and now his only brother. As the anchors of love and commitment are pulled up from his world, he feels increasingly adrift and alone in life.

In the midst of it, however, his faith remains strong, which I’m sure is the deep core of his character stability that has always impressed me. While his theology – the vocabulary and discourse he uses to make sense of his faith – is not identical with my own, I resonate with my father’s sense of a provident mystery that is present with him even in his loss and grief. We are not separate from reality after all, and ultimate reality (what we name God) is not ‘something else’ but rather the essential ground in which, as the Apostle Paul says quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, ‘we live and move and have our being’. In his quiet moments, my father finds reassurance that he is not really alone.

At first, our frequent phone conversations were my way of keeping in touch and sharing the grief of losing my mother. It was distressing to picture him there, sitting by himself on the edge of the bed or staring through tears at his morning oatmeal. I wanted to be with him, to give what comfort I could offer. Over time, however, it was his faith that ministered to me. He seemed softer, more vulnerable; and in his vulnerability, more genuine and present in the moment. Our connection grew stronger, and I found myself looking forward to the next chance we’d have to talk.

Someday I want to be like my father.

Why is it so easy for us to take what is precious for granted? When our loved ones are alive and with us, how do we dare let a day pass without telling them how much they mean to us? Why does it take losing them to remind us? I will not wait, not another day. After all, the day might not come.

Dad, I love you. Thank you for being a rock for me, and for helping me find my way.Promontory

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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Philosophy of Tears

Any theory of what life ultimately means, if it means anything at all, must take into account the reality of loss. We can contemplate things at some high level of abstraction, safe in the refuge of logic and ideas, or we can grapple with what’s really going on in life as we live it. And life includes a lot of suffering.

Obviously the Buddha realized this before I did, although I’m not quite ready to jump on board with his diagnosis and treatment plan. He believed that “life is suffering” (dukka), but that it doesn’t have to be this way. Suffering is eradicable; if we understand its cause, we can conceivably fix the problem and live without suffering (or at least with less).

His theory was that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent (anicca). Our desperate need (craving, tanha) for them to be a certain way in order to make us feel safe, powerful, important or whatever, locks them inside expectations that are hopelessly unrealistic. As they change or inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we are left hurt, disappointed, and profoundly discouraged.

Siddhartha left his wife and child in order to pursue enlightenment, which he found through the discipline of extinguishing desire and relinquishing every attachment to this passing world. The ultimate reality he came to realize was representable only by the symbol of a candle flame (desire) blowing out (nirvana). An absolute quiescence and undisturbed tranquility was the consistent result of his meditative effort; unattached and untroubled. This, he thought, should be our goal: liberation from suffering.

The Greek school of Stoic philosophy taught something similar. By gaining detachment from the things that change and fall away from us, a certain equanimity can be attained that will make the philosopher immune to anxiety and disappointment. This was believed to be a superior state of existence – something like the gods who hover just outside the flux and frustrations of mortal life.

A certain quality of intellectual transcendence (and emotional disengagement) has infiltrated just about every part of the high culture of the West. Experimental science, colonial politics, and other-worldly religion have all benefited from this ability of ours to detach from our feelings, our bodies, and our sympathetic connection to each other and the earth.

The title of this blog post is intentionally ambiguous. Is it about the tears real human beings shed in response to the hardships and losses of life? Or does it refer to tears in cloth, ruptures in the stitch-pattern that holds fabric together? As my readers might guess, the answer is “Yes.”Dynamics of LoveLong before the rise of medieval love poetry and the Arthurian knights, Jesus of Nazareth was the first Troubadour. He didn’t teach escape from suffering through renunciation and detachment. He didn’t instruct his disciples to extinguish desire and separate their minds from the complications of mortal existence. In a variety of ways, he encouraged his friends to get into life, reach out to others, and look for God in everything. Suffering is not to be idolized or pursued for its own sake, but I hear him saying that unless we are willing to take on the full burden of existence our lives will fall short of fulfillment.

So let’s begin with love, which is another name for the dance of attraction, copulation, ecstasy, and communion that spins the atoms and electrifies the cells of all living things. When two people meet, this interplay of forces carries on at both conscious and unconscious levels. The inherent intelligence of the universe is toward relationship, cooperation and oneness; if we can loosen up our definition a bit, then love is this intelligence. It’s what moves us to open up, reach out, and connect ourselves to another person. I will name this aspect of love, desire.

To his credit, Siddhartha discriminated between desire as such and selfish craving, extinguishing the latter as he sought to direct the former along the eightfold path of a virtuous life. But even at that, his program for liberation tended to steer around the tangles of everyday interpersonal love. This may be due to the fact that our closer relationships intrude on that inner fortress of security, self-defense, and secret motives we call “myself.” Just declaring it an illusion (anatta, no self), a kind of reaction formation that has no reality apart from the peculiar way it flinches and contracts against the conditions of existence, is not terribly helpful.

When we look into it, the mystery of interpersonal love is perhaps most apparent in the dynamics of trust. Here we must be more or less willing to allow another person into the vulnerable and less defended parts of ourselves. This is what love requires, which means that we must open ourselves to the possibility of getting hurt, exploited, abandoned, or betrayed. If we struggle with shame or self-doubt, this requirement to let down our guard may be more than we are able to manage.

Our ability to trust another person and allow him or her into our life is a function of self-confidence, which in turn has roots in what I have elsewhere called existential faith – the act of releasing oneself to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is where deep inner peace can be found, in the “letting go” of self and simply relaxing into being. If we lack this internal grounding, then we might try to make up for it in our relationships. Where there needs to be healthy trust, instead we turn our desire into demanding and unrealistic expectations on our partner to be just as we (so desperately) need him or her to be.

But if there is this inner peace – this faith-full release of to the deeper mystery of being-itself – then trust will happen and we will allow the other person into our lives. Desire, in turn, will move us into the dance of longing and embrace, bringing us together as one. It is here that we find true joy.

Desire motivates us to reach out to another person, to connect, to mingle, to entwine the branches of our separate lives into a shared pattern of meaning unique to our relationship. The distinct anchor-points in this connection are where we hold on. What I’m calling joy, then, is the experience of fulfillment we have as we share ourselves with another person and discover an expanded life together. In the very word fulfillment is this idea of capacity (“filled full”), expansion, and self-transcendence.

Now if you’re with me so far, the foregoing has been a set-up for the real point of this post. When we love another person and merge our life together with theirs, the time will come when one or the other “passes on.” I don’t only mean that we physically die, but that we change. We may change our minds, our life direction, our values and ambitions. Perhaps we want something else out of life and decide to move on. Or maybe our loved one does die. However it happens, those anchor-points that had tied our lives together suddenly become tears in the fabric of life’s meaning.

If you want real joy in life, then you need to learn how to love another person. That may not sound very Buddhist, but it certainly is Christian – in the sense of being right in line with the life, teaching, and philosophy of Jesus. A more Stoic or ascetic perspective would counsel against the quest for joy in life, since the place we find it (in love) will only lead to suffering. In our grief we long to have our lost love back in our life. To avoid this suffering, you should keep yourself from the entanglement of love.

A philosophy of life worth anything at all needs to embrace suffering. It must be willing to take on the grief of a fully human existence. We want joy, and so we need to learn how to love; but in loving we will eventually come to grief. True enough, we can renounce suffering as unnatural, as not part of “The Plan.” We can imagine a future day when nothing changes, everyone lives forever, love is uncomplicated, and joy never ends.

For now, however, we have an important choice to make.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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What Death Leaves Behind

My father is trying to find his balance now, after 56 years of leaning into his best friend and life partner. It’s not easy. The reality of my mother’s recent passing – or I should rather say, the hole she left behind – catches him unexpectedly and pulls him into convulsing grief, yearning to have her back. It strikes me, as it hasn’t before, that the real pain of death is not in what it takes from us, but in the absence it leaves behind.EmptyChair

When we lose the warm presence of someone we have loved for so long, memories call to us from the fading edge of awareness.

It’s tempting to remember, to go back to a time when she was here with me, tilting her head and smiling, or slapping her knee with a round tumbling laugh. I vividly recall my last conversation with my mother – what she said, how she looked, what she was wearing. It feels good to stay there, in that gauzy space in my memory.

I don’t want to leave.

But then. Why can’t the world just stand still long enough for me to collect myself, to mourn my loss and cherish what I had? How can those millions of people rush by so insensitively, so carelessly? Don’t they know? Can’t they see this absence, this hole that I keep falling into?

The Buddha said that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent and passing away. We hold on to what we love and it becomes part of us. As time goes on we hopefully learn how to adapt and accept things as they change. My love for my mother evolved over the years I knew her, getting deeper and stronger and more complicated as we shared life together.

My clutch as an infant gave way to an apron-string dependency in early childhood. Then I tethered my adolescent identity to her (and to my father), orbiting in tightening circles or flying farther out according to how supported or misunderstood I felt. In my adult years, we both were wrapped into our separate adventures, touching base from time to time by phone and sharing the occasional holiday as a family. Even though I didn’t get to touch and kiss her very often, the presence of my mother at least somewhere in my world provided me with an ineffable sense of security.

Her death has left behind this vacancy. My father is overcome with emotion as he vacuums over the spot where her hospice bed had been. An empty chair across the kitchen table has him weeping over his morning oatmeal. You know how a wall that once held a painting keeps a shadow in its absence? It’s like that – a reminder of something that isn’t there anymore. His vacancy is different from mine, even though they were once occupied by the same living person.

One of my daughters has a favorite book of my mother’s. In the margins are faint pencil checks marking passages that had caught her attention; here and there a crumb from her morning toast is lodged in the seam. Young fingers slowly sweep the pages – imagining, remembering, wondering, longing. Something so ordinary is suddenly the only one of its kind.

I find myself getting frustrated over an inability to focus on things that held my fascination but a couple of weeks ago. Certainly she knew I loved her. Did I tell her often enough? What does that even mean: enough?

The world still wobbles out of balance. Sorrow rises and rolls like a black ocean, lapping over the rim of my fragile composure. So love leads to suffering? I hurt more the harder I hold on? Sounds right. But I’m not quite ready to let go. I need to live with this absence for just a while longer.

Why don’t you pull up a chair and tell me your story?

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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