Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Great Books
Class XI: Thomas Merton: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
So, we reach the end of our path – the last class.  Or is it simply another beginning? 
We sat together, New York’s air now having grown cold and dry with the change of seasons, the encroaching evening – it would be pitch dark by the time we reentered the world – already present at 2:00 in the afternoon.  The longest day of the year hulked just over the middle of the week, a couple days away.
Thomas Merton wrote in the 1950s and 60s, yet his words could have been penned yesterday.  Such is the vision of the prophet and, unlike most of those we read, he lived in our same culture, spoke our language and grew up somewhere in the American middle class.  His ideas on engagement, activism, politics, the vast emptiness of the public mind, the use of language as violence, the supine sloth that lurks in each of us, the struggle with how, exactly, to engage with a world that seems to be spinning ever-more hysterically into insanity, our death wish in how we deal with the environment, international relations, our neighbor – all seem so prescient and present. 
Merton was only the second of our mytics who dealt directly with our social compact: our need, as
humans, to engage with the world.  Of course, Merton more than our other social mystic (Marcus Aurelius), struggled with how best to engage.  His push/pull with social obligation brought a saying by one of his favorite thinkers, Chuang Tzu, to mind:
Great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses. And now, as all the world is in error, how shall I, though I know the true path, how shall I guide? If I know that I cannot succeed and yet try to force success, this would be but another source of error. Better then to desist and strive no more. But if I do not strive, who will?
But in his struggle to understand his own path, and his assurance that all humans are inconsistent, inconstant and struggling (just like us!), his writing made it feel “O.K.” to be human.  Even the best among us have guilt and failure larded through our lives.  And at the core, all of us need some portion of public approval, even if we sacrifice Truth to get it from the surrounding people in our lives and society in general.  It is part and parcel of our struggle, and our inevitable failure to be perfect human beings.
We talked of Merton himself – his personal failures and inconsistencies.  Merton, depressive and socially insecure, had a love affair with a much younger woman, cut it off and then died under dubious circumstances, which might have indicated suicide (after having taken a first-class flight!) in Thailand:
He fell in love (at 53) with 19-year-old Margie Smith. It was a situation which was obviously provoking an acute inner crisis in Merton who was perceived to be in a mid-life fling with a young woman. On Saturday, June 11th, 1966 Merton, by now back at Gethsemani, arranged to “borrow” the Louisville office of his psychologist, Dr James Wygal, to meet Margie, where they drank a bottle of champagne and became intimate.
None are immune from imperfection – but at what point do these most human “foibles” become disqualifying?  Look too deeply into the private lives of any of our heroes – be they mystical, political, athletes etc. – and we are sure to grow disappointed, and often disgusted.
Mystic with a Trench Coat
Merton struggled with happiness.  If one grows happy, does this simply mean they have “given in,” supine accomplices to a world rife with injustice, hatred and pride? Is happiness, in and of itself, an admission of guilt?  And if we are not to be happy, then what struggle is “worth” it?  What kind of war should we be fighting, and with what armaments? 
Merton spoke convincingly of retaining one's sense of self, one's own thoughts and points of view.  Too many struggles – whether for good or ill, as activists or nativists – simply efface the individual in a program of slogans, propaganda and other people’s desires.  Sometimes, true struggle takes place on the human plane – as amongst a few people gathered quietly in a room in the Lower East Side, struggling toward some Truth, while the world itself careens by outside the darkening windows.  After all, Merton noted:
Genuine dissent must always keep a human measure. It must be 
free and spontaneous. The slighter gestures are often the more 
significant, because they are unpremeditated and they cannot 
be doctored beforehand by the propagandist.
It is best not to join a program or a movement.  The messages concerning the “correct” path resides within, and must be plumbed and respected.  And even then, these messages can appear confusing, contradictory and unclear.  Such is our life.
Echoing the Baghavad Gita, we are to act without becoming lost in the group or action.  Act for ourselves, inspired by personal need and experience.  Armies, politics, the church – these create systems which overwhelm, snuffing out the individual.  This kind of uncritical following represents the antithesis of mystical yearning.
But still.  How to apply these ideas to our banal lives, the day-to-day, the myriad of confusing interactions which come at us everyday?  What, exactly, is Merton asking us to do?  One participant noted that he seemed more like a mystical cartographer (a beautiful image!), mapping what the spiritual world looks like, with all its peaks and valleys, rivers and oceans, yet not providing a clue as to how to manage our way through the terrain.
Given our current political travails, we talked of how Merton’s ideas apply to our struggle with “otherness” and “sameness,” “us” and “them.”  How do we obliterate (within ourself) the sense of people being “different,” even categorically so?  For myself, I have always thought of my embedded racist thoughts and feelings as similar to alcoholism: I have to be ever-vigilant of my own prejudices, and even then, must be aware of how easily I can slip back into the illness.  We are conditioned to see “otherness” – it is human nature.  Overcoming this is a lifelong struggle, at least for me.
Merton assures that if the goal is to realize what unifies us, talking will not get us there.  The minute we open our mouths, after all, we are little more than hippocrites and liars!  The experience of “sameness” is an internal experience, beyond words, and expressed through gentle action.
Merton talked of acceptance – a concept we have often run across in our mystical travels – but with a twist.  Not that we should accept ourselves as we are – certainly not that!  But the world, and especially a world that just doesn’t make sense sometimes.  And the aspect of ourselves that mirrors the incomprehensibility that we see through our little eyes, especially when we don’t make sense or are inconsistent.  Can we accept the senselessness?  Or must everything – both about ourselves and in the world – fit into our preconceived vision we hold in our consciousness?
Merton is a social mystic.  So we spoke (yet again) of his view of the world, and how we fit into it.  He assures that “history” is nothing more than attempting to stop the moving picture of history and examine one single frame, and from there separate what is “important” from the rest.  However, we are embedded in the moving picture – we move with it across time.  Our sense of history is little more than a fantasy, colored by the politics of the winners.
You cannot be a “good” person in some ways, yet “bad” in others.  There is no scorecard where a 51% tally marks you as "good." "Good" is a verb; it is found through action, and though  no one will never be perfect, the individual must define this “goodness” for themselves and then yearn toward it.  And be honest.  Part and parcel of this search is the ideal of equanimity: to not care what others say about you, either good or bad.  To be “respectable” is to be lost.  To respect yourself and your actions is to begin to become found.
We spoke of so much more, of course.  In our meandering path from something that happened to one of us an hour ago to the timeless wisdom of Merton, his love of Chuang Tzu, his tortured personal story, his exhortations and admissions, his honesty.  Though like all of us, his honesty was only to a point. 

And then it was over.  Eleven sessions in a small room in New York’s Lower East Side.  Scrabbling with our fingernails into the hard crust of Truth, like children in a back yard with tiny shovels, digging a hole to China . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment