Divine love seems inexplicably tied to divine judgment at times. With even a cursory search online the subsequent finding of so many articles and images depicting people of otherwise benign feelings supporting hatred and irrational judgment, the only seeming constant in a species devoted to exhibiting the divine in their lives is divisiveness and cruelty. There is assuredly much to be questioned in how this happens. As a former adherent to a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity, I can with rueful head-shaking recall many a moment of self-righteous judgment and resultant hurt feelings, even among those I would have called my spiritual brothers and sisters. As I began to fervently question the ideological grounds for my thinking I rarely had to pause for long to be reminded why the search for another answer needed to continue.
The divine or, if the desire is to be more personal, a god, seems most often to possess a sense of transcendence, a broad interconnection between various other characteristics. There is always both a connection to one or more human qualities and then the concept of god is placed in a space above or beyond these connections. At once it is immediate and far away. Much the same occurs when we consider concepts like “patriotism” and “joy,” where there are certainly behaviors associated, they never quite encompass the whole of the feeling.
The ability to collect disparate data and then feel a sense of the transcendent linking them altogether is likely just how our brains organize experience. Putting together the vast amount of information provided by experience, the brain creates a seamless reality often even if it needs to make things up. Our sight, for instance, is not nearly as comprehensive as we like to think, focused primarily on identifying movement (likely from our evolutionary predator-prey history) and funneled through only a small section of the overall eye. The image that we “see” is largely a creation of the brain, built from the constant movements of the eye taking in data, with focus on any changes that are noticed. Anyone who has been startled by finally seeing someone who’s been standing right beside them for a length of time is well aware that sight is not all-encompassing.
Our brains create images that are broader than the data we are taking in, weaving together threads into a whole. That this whole means we miss some things that are there and add other things that aren’t is the stuff of memory research, where people have been known to utterly ignore a person in a monkey-suit or add false details to someone observed during a heavily charged emotional experience. A personal narrative, possessing the quality of transcendence, seems foundational to human experience.
Everything from skyscrapers to iPads, social organizations and the places we call home, is a creation out of transcendent intent, a form cobbled together out of pieces of information, often only initially considered in the imagination. I am reminded of people who lament how cell-phones have created distance within families, but during natural catastrophes the Red Cross raises millions from small donations through texts. We growl at the person talking loudly on their phone in a restaurant and yet rush to it when wanting to make sure a loved one is safe. Every form, while still retaining the potential of its original intent, possesses a space for the filling in of anyone’s desire, however different it may have been from the original.
Concerning the divine, while particular manifestations of a god idea can be used to justify any manner of behaviors, this stems from a quality of humanity, determining personal purpose through identification with a transcendent concept. People will defend their country, not even recognizing that the concept of “country” is a largely arbitrary term tied to imaginary lines on a human-made map. We’ll lament and/or wax eloquently about “family,” but rarely stop to consider that the concept means many things to many people precisely because it is bound only to data selected by each person and therefore each of us does not need to be bound to any singular form of it.
Transcendent concepts require information and experience to exist, but they do not require any particular set of information. “Family” can mean blood-relations or those you are close to, and “god” can be filled by any number of notions concerning behavior, ethics and aspirations. By reminding ourselves of how our big ideas can hold whatever we want to put in them, we can move beyond discussion of a god and focus on what people are filling it with. We can use it to separate one from another, to condemn and mock, to find shame in our very natures, or we can fill it in with what is humanizing and uplifting, a call to exhibit the best of our nature, to work towards the building of community, a committed union.
What form meaning takes is open for debate; that we will build meaning out of the parts of our lives is inevitable. If we begin in separation that is all we will find. Beginning from a place of human connection, separation and shame will have no place.
© David Teachout
Apathy is mostly believed to reside solely in individual people, considered as some kind of disease to be dealt with. The prescription given takes the form of some immediate action. Get the person involved in an activity and the apathy will go away. The insidiousness of apathy is how easy it is to mistake mere movement with engagement. Movement is a linear process from one point to another; engagement is the imagined projection of self into an evolving and interconnected life. Mistaking the former with the latter can blind a person to life’s pregnant possibility by believing a shallow vision is truly deep.
The myth here is any activity equals conscious, intentional, engagement. However, quantity of movement, no matter how frenzied, does not in itself signify a conscious intentional connection between the individual and the community. This ease of mimicry leads to the uncomfortable acknowledgment that all the family vacations, all the phone calls one makes for a political party, the protests of varying degrees of shrill pronouncement, the house parties one throws for church groups and even the fervor with which an idea is defended, is all for naught if the action is done without an active intentional engagement with those involved. To be next to someone and yet feel alone is an inevitable consequence.
One popular advertising tagline declares: “just do it.” No declaration is made as to just what “it” is, but assurance is pronounced that engaging in “it” will alleviate the banality of a life lacking in active felt experience. There is a form of salvation message here, a way to feel immediately connected without any concern for understanding. Action for the sake of action covers a barrenness of relationship and a paucity of ideological understanding. Yet with every rally, every weekend retreat, we feel a growing sense of our own powerlessness and a disconnection with our fellow human beings. Without deliberation, without consciously placing the self into the stream of life’s events, seeing the inter-relation that one has with every experience, action is simply a haphazard attempt to fill a biological need, a gut reaction without meaning.
Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul, notes:
“Life lived soulfully is not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness. Dropping the salvational fantasy frees us up to the possibility of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundation of soul.”
Mere action leads to apathy because we are so busy attempting to be free from our natural reality, we run away from it rather than engage and embrace. Consider “imagination as a connect-the-dots image-maker expanding the reality we’re aware of. The available dots and their connections stem from the disparate parts of our past and present experiences.” Imagination is the means by which we bridge the content of our lives with the substance of our hopes and dreams. When engaged, imagination looks at our inability to fly and creates airplanes, looks upon relational separation birthed by religious fundamentalism and declares instead we belong to an interconnected natural universe, ponders disease and comes up with research to cure it and looks upon a world continuing towards destruction and offers new forms of energy, conservation and the idea of living in balance.
None of these engagements require running away from reality, none of them hope for a salvation that is always just beyond our grasp. Each and every one of them, big and small, from the airplane to helping a stranger with getting food, never once lack acknowledgment with our physical limitations. Seeing limit, each of these engagements creates a new path to address, casting aside the shallow vision of a separated self for the depth of potential residing in the continually manifesting universe.
This is why apathy is not an individual sickness, it is a felt relational absence. Mere action would have us believe we exist in our own worlds, lonely billiard balls careening through existence. Intentional engagement seeks to widen the vision to the interconnected whole. We embrace our relational experience not with mere action, but with every conscious acknowledgement of the lives we live and the nature within which we live it.
I remember the day of my Christian salvation experience, that moment when, in the spirit of spatial irrationality I “invited Jesus into my heart.” There are countless others who have experienced a similar moment, reveled in its purifying quality and soberly accepted the reality of a world in which death was no longer the enemy but simply a momentary stop on the way to worshiping the Lord in a celestial body. I was a child but I recognized then the awesome power and weight of divine final judgment; that moment when having given up this mortal coil there exists the recognition that one lacks the essential component to confer everlasting life. Fear of damnation and eternal torture at the hands of a supposedly loving ‘God’ drove me to the contemplation of my mortality and not rather an exploration of life’s many manifestations, the potential for something new and glorious.
Thankfully whereas then I saw “through a glass darkly” now I see “face to face,” the reality of life’s continuance, of the abundance where death is not a finality but merely the end of only one manifestation of nature’s abundant forms. Death has lost its sting and not because of some sacrifice by another. Life goes on, it must, it cannot do other than perpetuate its own life-giving-ness. Where in that should fear reside? Where in a universe that has all that we can even potentially comprehend, pushing us by virtue of creative constancy to the frontiers of inquiry, is there a place for having lack, either here or in the moment of our final breath?
Life breeds more life just as love manifests more love and joy luxuriates in the openness of more joy. I believe the existential angst that death often brings results in a profound need to believe in a continued continuity of experience. Stories of what exists beyond death are numerous and often fantastical, exhibiting the imaginative manifestation of humanity, each story drawing from personal experience, cultural myths and familial ties. We want to keep going on and our bodies, caught as they are in this middle earth, can only conceive of something new from within a place of personal knowledge. What truth they all have in common is a heartfelt desire for personal continuance in some form or other.
We create narratives out of implicit memories of emotional connections to events we are automatically shifting our perceptions of to fit a worldview, pushed by internal demands that seem to flow from the universe itself, resulting in a constant stream of meaning-making desire. This desire should be celebrated rather than dismissed. Such desire can be and is a source of connection to the inevitable continuance of creative expression, where the cessation of the ego in death is not a place of finality but an emergence into a near-infinite potential of nature’s possibility.
That possibility, like the myths and legends and stories shaped through human history, manifests the values life holds for each person. If one lives a life of judgment, then the afterlife will exhibit such. If one lives a life of acceptance and celebration of connection, then the afterlife will reflect this. The relationship one has with immortality is not about whether one’s conscious presence continues, but rather the connection to the life currently practiced. Ask yourself what object of desire should continue on when this form has ceased and there you will find the connection to your own immortality. If such is life-denying then so shall death be, but if such is life-giving then so shall the eternal be.
Attachment, for the buddhist, is the root of all suffering. Attachment, for everyone, is an inevitable manifestation of relational dynamics. Thankfully these two statements are not mutually exclusive, however much they may appear to be so at face-value. Consider attachment as both a structure for guiding behavior and as a narrow means of viewing human potential, with the latter being what the buddhist is warning about. We cannot stop structuring our lives through the lens of attachment or relationship, but no single connection or form it manifests as can or should hold the entirety of our selves. A web of relational interconnection provides avenues for growth, expression and the near-infinite variety of emotional experiences. A singular focus on any one of them leads to obsession, shallowness of expression and suffering.
Unfortunately in the self-help literature concerning attachment, it is often used only in the context of a romantic connection. Two things about this are problematic. One, romantic connections are only one form of relational attachment and are not demonstrative of the whole of a person’s life. Indeed, attachment research is based largely on the original child/parent connection, making the focus on a romantic form peculiar to say the least. Second, there is no time in our lives when we are not in a relationship of some kind, whether we actively pursue the extent of it or not. Think of all the people not yet having been met, combined with the near infinite potential contexts that such meetings could begin and develop through. Think of that friendship or partnership that, through changing circumstances, allowed insight into facets of the other person that otherwise had never been seen.
When broadly considered, attachment takes on the quality of a kaleidoscopic lens, shifting into new visions with each turn of the perspective. With this sense of attachment in mind, we can frame all human relationships to be either passive or active. The former, passive, is the vast majority of casual and incidental connections of everyday social living, from those we meet walking the street and riding public transport to many work connections and even telemarketers. A lack of intentional awareness is typical of these connections, where mere moments later we have often forgotten they even occurred. The latter, or active, is what is often meant by “relationship,” where there exists a conscious intentional stance to pursue the extent to which that form is capable of being fulfilled.
Regardless of passive or active, all relationships are part of the human interactional reality, providing the space to manifest behavior and the energy/information flow for empathic activity.
That inability to stop, to avoid connection, is why a narrow focus on the active relationships of our lives provides so much space for surprise and room for shame/doubt. Our reactions to events and other people can sometimes seem to jump up and bite us, like lashing out at a loved one or co-worker, being unaware of what normally would be seen as warning signs. This is because the structure of our lives is not determined merely by the connections we’re currently aware of, but all of them that exist.
Picture a brick wall, covered in ivy, with the roots of vines so intertwined within the bricks that any semblance of it being a merely human-made structure has long been lost. The bricks are the connections we’re aware of, the vines all the one’s we typically are not focused upon. Sure they provide some interesting patterns and can be beautiful to look at, but our minds are easily convinced that it is the bricks that are holding up the entire edifice. Now imagine ripping out the vines, with pockmarks showing in the bricks, others becoming loose and even a few falling out altogether. This is the story of our lives. No person stands alone, no action occurs in the absence of the warp and weft of our interwoven existence.
When considering potential avenues for action, whether it be projecting forward for ourselves or looking at another, the passive connections are just as important as the active. We may easily succumb to the lure of being hyper-vigilant upon a partner or friend, but just as they exist in a reciprocal relationship of change with us, so then do they exist in other such connections with hundreds more, each shifting, to varying degrees, the potential of behavior. The kind word from grandmother, the snide comment from a co-worker, the disruption of dinner from a telemarketer, a surprise kindness from a stranger, the viewing of a funny video on social media from someone never met; these and a thousand more are all variables in the construction of our personal stories.
A sense of attachment is the empathic union with our connections.
The degree of reflective consideration we give to this ordered-chaos will determine to no small degree both the quality of our emotional lives and the extent to which we fulfill the potential for our relationships. Seeing more is to be more.
© David Teachout
What are we to make of human nature? The answer depends on which story of birth is believed. Birthing stories are about identifying those attributes that continue on from the mother-figure or simply that which comes before (Turner, 1996). This is a relation of cause/effect, where something comes from having causal connections to what it becomes and manifests in the world. Whether we speak of “coming out of” or “emerging,” as in “his actions came out of a sense of fear,” we are ascribing the power of causation through the linkage. Where a person believes humanity came out of will largely determine the characteristics associated with being human.
On the one hand is an evolutionary origin, where our inheritance is an incremental accrual of adaptive features in relation to particular environments. On the other is a monolithic origin, dually instantiated by humanity being either fallen and predisposed to destruction or benevolent and with the right context will inevitably pursue progress. The first is usually explored through science, notably evolutionary sociobiology and psychology, whereas the latter two can be found in mainline fundamentalist religious ideologies and liberal liberation-type theologies, respectively. Interestingly while humanity as evolutionary construction is usually found in the domain of science, contemplative spiritual traditions and mindfulness training also explore humanity through this rubric.
This latter point should not be overlooked. While conservative fundamentalist forms of religion get a lot of coverage, being as they feed directly into the news cycle’s focus on sensationalism and simplicity, religion is a human construct therefore capable of exhibiting the best of our humanity rather than making room for the worst. Further, fundamentalist forms of thought are not just religious, found as they are wherever an authority, person or object, is endowed with inalienable and unquestionable authority. A deity can take this space, but it can be filled with individual leaders, groups and ideological dictates. If at any time a point is reached where questioning is outright denied or dismissed through the escape-hatch of mystery, this is fundamentalism. The resultant behavior manifesting out of such tends to be rigid, dictatorial, prone to bigotry and sees humanity through a static lends, incapable of change through any power of itself.
As noted, this static view of humanity is not merely conservative and religious, it can be liberal and political as well. Easy examples flow from the former, with notions of the innate sinful or fallen state of humanity topping the list of shame-filled destructive ideas. At no point in these ideas can anything humanity do result in their salvation or emergence into the good, it is only through an external savior of some form, whether embodied in a person or through particular acts of attrition. Liberal liberation-type notions are similar in this respect, the salvation of humanity being not found through the expression of any intrinsic quality, but from an external source. Any time the notion is offered that “if only x,” where “x” is education, civil rights, democracy, women’s liberation, etc., were to occur then societal ills would be cured or put on the path towards progressive civilization, this is the liberal version of salvation through an external source. In both cases, the external source is needed to unleash humanity from some unseen chains, the only difference being what has been locked up; the former being a state of sin and depravity, the latter an innate drive for progress.
Both monolithic views meet up in a static view of humanity, in an attempt to limit people to a single aspect or innate characteristic. The result is an inability and unwillingness to see the interconnected and integrated whole of bio-social reality, the only matrix through which personal responsibility has any way of being fully understood. Declaring one’s heinous actions to be no more than a case of humanity’s depravity and an indication of the need for a savior is to set aside considerations of social morality and rational fortitude. Expressing the fantastical belief that if a society were to only support education, suffrage or other progressive cause would result in freedom for all is to ignore the psychological inevitability of in-group/out-group thinking and other cognitive heuristics.
While one or the other vision may personally be found to be more palatable, the result is still a narrow and ultimately unhelpful interpretive story and frankly, with our understanding of genetics, a poor usage of the birthing metaphor. At times in a child’s development, statements will be made of how she or he looks just like or acts just like one or the other parent, but at no time do such statements seek to capture the entirety of the person. We tacitly and often explicitly accept that each of us is an amalgam of our parents, the environment in which we live and the social connections we express ourselves through. This integral model for understanding our humanity puts us on a path to seek, expand, explore or reach for, all of which will express itself through the lens of an evolutionary paradigm.
Seeing ourselves through an evolutionary birth does not support an easy or simplistic view of humanity. We must give up narrow causation and embrace an integral model, recognizing that as perspective shifts what was once a cause can be an effect of something else and at the same time.
An evolutionary birth means incremental change in connection with environment, bringing into focus a contextualized nuance to the understanding of any single person or social issue. Becoming less concerned with conclusions than with the questions that keep us humble within the expanding push of uncertainty, judgment is less about limiting people to a singular static quality and more about determining how the multitude of variables in any life can open up new ways of being.
We do not need a savior because there is no salvation outside of ourselves and the natural world within and through which we formulate the multiplicity of our selves. We cannot place the burden for evolutionary advancement on any single victory, on any single movement, no matter the level of social progress. The static models lead to a stillborn existence, whereas the multifaceted reach of an evolutionary integral model is forever listening to the life that will not be constrained. We have not inherited a life of narrow meaning, we have been brought into this world with the capacity to see purpose in everything we do.