Friday, December 28, 2007

Still Searching After All These Years 2

A Vision for Humanity 1

That great and wise beings have trodden and still do tread on this earth is obviously beyond doubt. That they were and still are in a very small minority is also beyond gainsaying. We need only call to mind such great and wonderful human beings like Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, Siddartha Gautama or the Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni Buddha, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Anwar Sadat or Oscar Romero to mention several from the annals of human history to illustrate this point. That some of these mentioned above have been sanitized or otherwise raised to transcendent heights is beyond denial, but this fact is irrelevant to my present comments. I am merely alluding to their ability to plumb the depths and to scale the heights of what it means to be human; to advance either by active engagement with the world or by written or recalled reflection possible meanings for life and living and their ability to envision projects that would enhance humanity and the world of which it is a seminal part. To a great extent these individuals, therefore, have become great symbols of wisdom.

There are, thankfully, still a small but significant number of these leading individuals in this much suffering and oh so unequal world. Other luminaries of wisdom still living thankfully that come to my mind randomly as I type these words are the wonderfully brave Aung San Suu Kyi who is a pro-democracy activist and leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar (formerly Burma), and a noted prisoner of conscience (who has been under house arrest for years now) and a marvellous advocate of nonviolent resistance in concord with her Buddhist beliefs, and then the retired and venerable politician and wonderful human being Nelson Mandela. Consequently, one of the links on this blog is to a wonderful group of such contemporary visionaries and symbols of hope in this often despairing world, viz., The Elders, which grouping comprises these wonderful souls: Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, our own Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, Graça Machel, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Fernando H Cardoso, Li Zhaoxing, Muhammad Yunus and Aung San Suu Kyi. Like me, you will probably not know most of these wonderful people, but click on the link for The Elders on the right side of my page among the given links and you will learn all about them and their wonderful vision for the future of humankind.

Above I have placed a picture I took of an Italian crib in the Procathedral Dublin last Christmas, Christmas 2006

Still Searching After All These Years

Seasonal Reflections

I always find, as no doubt does the greater part of humankind, that any extended period away from one’s daily routine of work, is good for the spirit. It allows one to reflect on where one is going in life; to take things with greater ease; to indulge in pastimes, energetic or otherwise; to relax in good company; to read, to write, to paint. Christmas is one such period allowing us the space to put our otherwise fraught existence into some perspective. The central myth of Christianity – namely that of a God or what Christians call the One true God, or a least the Son of God, being born in the form of a human infant – helps to create an ideal period for such timely and seasonal reflection. This doctrine, needles to say, is called the Incarnation and it is a central tenet of orthodox Christianity.

For children there is a magic and mystery ready to be experienced that we adults, if fortunate, may share. Those of you lucky enough to have children can so easily taste of this special magic and mystery, while those of us who are either single or childless may simply hope to share in it by visiting our nieces, nephews or godchildren or helping out in the local school or in a children’s charity. However, childless or otherwise, we may with just a little willingness and a little determination share in the magic and mystery.

As I write these few words for today’s reflection I am mindful of a wonderfully magical experience I had just before we broke up from school. Our primary school principal asked me to play Santa for the second class pupils and for a special group of 8 underprivileged kids in his national school. I was delighted to accept the offer. I suppose I’ve always been something of an actor anyway. I always love performing. Anyway, the experience was magical – for the kids and indeed for me, big child that I am. I have for the last 15 years or more been convinced of the importance of each person needing to nurture the inner child. Christmas, then, is a very special time for everyone, allowing us to care for in a unique way the little boy or little girl within us.

Anyway, back to my narrative. I felt like a type of priest as I “vested” in my Santa robes. I really enjoyed the experience for the children’s sake as well as for my own. The heart of method acting I suppose is where one becomes as really and truly as possible the character in question in an attempt to bring the whole thing off. The second class pupils – around 30 of them - were all awe-struck with the arrival of Santa. The incredulity, mystery, magic, excitement, call it what you will, written on their little faces, was a simple delight to behold. One little fellow, so taken aback to be asked a question by Santa, blurted out that he could not remember where he lived. Another little one said that he did not know. All of the others knew where they lived. Then, there was the great fun of asking them what they were getting for Christmas, coupled with what they would leave on the table for Santa on Christmas Eve after he had clambered down the chimney. One little fellow said “a glass of milk.” At this stage the little lad who had said he could not remember where he lived put up his hand and said, “Santa, I remember where I live. It’s …”

Then the meeting with the special class of underprivileged children was entirely special. The principal had bought a special present for each and had ordered a meal for them from the local take-away. Christmas is indeed a special time for giving. One young boy – I’d say he was probably about 9 or 10 and who looked very pale and neglected – kept saying, “you’re not really Santa, I can see your face underneath your beard” and delighted in trying to pull off my false beard. However, their delight in getting their presents outweighed the obvious truth that this was only a rather well-rounded pot-bellied character dressed in a funny red uniform.

Ah yes, I walked back to the secondary school with a lighter step, having been the receiver of something special and beautiful in life – the wonderful experience of being involved in helping others, in the very joy of giving; the appreciation of the very truth of the matter that to give is really to receive a hundred times over. I walked with the lightness of a newly converted Ebenezer Scrooge as he had awoken to the real truth of Christmas, that to give is the ultimate experience of love. I, no doubt, had a tear in my eye.

Whatever the myths that we humans subscribe to – be they religious ones like Christmas or more humanistic ones like “Santa Claus” – one thing is certain and that is that we need them to give some meaning to our little lives. Surely, it matters not a jot what we believe in – once those beliefs do not hurt others or cause others to be hurt; once those beliefs enhance the dignity of all human life and promote love and kindness among all races. Whether they are true literally or not is also, to my mind, inconsequential. We need life-enhancing myths to keep us going. That’s why fundamentalist believers of all kinds annoy me with the literalness of their beliefs – a literalness that often leads to hate and bloodshed. That’s also why fundamentalist atheists of all kinds annoy me too, because fundamentally they have the same evangelical outlook about their own scientific beliefs that fundamentalist religious believers have of their religious convictions. Both these groups are sure and certain of the validity of their stances and of the sure and certain invalidity of the stances of their opponents. Also both these groups want to convert you and me and every reasonable matter-of-fact human being to the validity of their stances. Not alone are they sure that they are right, but they are doubly sure that we less knowledgeable and oh so ignorant ones need to be disabused of our false beliefs and converted to the real truth their own stance! (Indeed, as every philosopher worth his or her salt, or any reasonably intelligent questioning human being knows, whatever truth is or more correctly whatever truths are, they are never as simple or as cut and dried as fundamentalists of all hues would have us believe.)

What both groups need is to taste a little more of the magic and mystery of life. Both need also to take themselves with a cartload of salt; to take themselves less seriously and to be more open and just a little less sure. They need to bone up on the real meaning of myth. They need to examine the language of their beliefs; to question their own presuppositions a little more sceptically from time to time. They need a greater sense of humour. Let them go out to the cinema or theatre. Let them go out and listen to opposing viewpoints. Let them come out of their ivory towers and walk among real people. Let them go to the iconoclastic comedians of this world and begin to laugh at themselves!

Above I have placed a picture I took with my mobile phone of the Christmas Tree in my mother's ward at St Mary's Hospital, Phoenix Par, Dublin, a few days ago.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

In Search of Meaning

Certainty Versus Uncertainty

As I grow older I get progressively less certain about things. The certitudes I once embraced as a young man have receded far into the background of my consciousness. The ground underneath my feet seems not to be as solid as I once thought. When I look out into the horizon across the waters that bathe this small island it’s hard to see the whole vista with one hundred per cent clarity. Not everything is crystal clear. Wherever 100% clarity exists, it certainly does not exist in my mind or even in my own perceptions. I’m not even sure as to whether the world of things is as I perceive it. Then, when it comes to the world of the mind itself, the solid ground I once presumed I walked upon is now no longer that secure or solid at all. Certainties are vanishing for me like smoke in the wind.

Honesty is refreshing and freeing. In intellectual honesty we are no longer slaves to set ideas, dogmas of any kind or indeed our own presumptions and biases. Intellectual honesty, as well as emotional honesty, is a hard virtue to practise. Those who are both emotionally and intellectually honest have done a lot of deep soul searching, and that often at a cost to either their personal or professional lives. These thoughts are occasioned both by the reflectivity that descends upon me at this particular season of the year – Christmastide – and also by other constraining realities like the deaths of acquaintances, my mother’s dementia, the fact that her younger brother, Ted, 75 is dying of cancer and also by the fact that I’m at that juncture in my life where I need a change of job for my own sanity and well-being. This latter fact has led me to take the risk of pursuing a career break at my own expense. Deep down I feel good, but I am also concerned about how I shall eventually earn some money should I choose not to go back to teaching. So many certainties have died for me. I am at a crossroads physically (50 years old just with high B.P., endogenous depression and high cholesterol); professionally I’m feeling burnt-out and know it and so I’m searching deep inside for meaning. That’s what Jung said after all - his sixth task of ageing, “determining the meaning of one’s life,” is about gaining conscious awareness of one’s purpose for being. It is a profound dimension of human behaviour, and the second half of human life is where it finds its most essential expression.

I have been dipping into a wonderful book today called The Irish Soul in Dialogue (The Liffey Press, 2002) edited by Stephen J. Costello, a philosopher in UCD. I began to re-read certain of his interviews with “great” or at least ”well-known” contemporary Irish figures. Two interviews I re-read provide a marvellous contrast and a wonderful background for my personal ruminations. I refer to the conversations Stephen had with the erstwhile Professor of Psychiatry, UCD, Dr. Ivor Browne and the one with Cardinal Desmond Connell, emeritus Professor of Metaphysics at the same educational establishment..

Cardinal Connell comes across as a genial person who is conservative and Thomistic to a fault. He simply loves traditional metaphysics and talks with animation and conviction about angels, archangels and guardian angels. Without a doubt he is an intellectual and knows his “stuff” inside out. However, it is ivory tower “stuff,” totally unrelated to real lived life. One wonders how the Pope appointed a total “airy-fairy” academic to a pastoral role in the Church when the man was reaching retirement age as Professor of Metaphysics in UCD. One gets the feeling that one is in the presence of a dinosaur when reading this rather strange and arcane interview.

Connell is a proud man who is rather easily offended, e.g., here is an account of one such offence taken in his own words: “When Trinity celebrated the third centenary of Berkeley, and Berkeley was heavily influenced by Malebranche (Connell’s doctoral area), I was informed that I was not invited to give a talk there, though I was invited to give a few quid, but I got great satisfaction from one of the lecturers referring to my work.” (op. cit., p. 53) Of the famous mediaeval German mystic Eckhart, this is what the Cardinal says: “Needless to say, Eckhart has led to all kinds of nonsense, including that man who left the Dominicans – what’s his name?” He brushes aside psychology – such as the transpersonal psychology of Jung as “psychologizing” and that “the trouble is that they are trying to appreciate all that at a purely phenomenological level, and the phenomenological level is insufficient. The phenomenological level is the level of experience. But you have to reflect on the deeper conditions of experience at the metaphysical level.” (ibid. p58) Then he talks with complete certainty, and undoubtedly deep conviction, about the nature of angels as pure spirit. Everything he says reads like the catechism, but as he is a deep believer and a Cardinal of the Church we can at least expect as much.

Dr. Connell has not much time for theology qua theology, that is for pure theology or what he terms as “pure theological positivism.” The following makes interesting partisan and doctrinaire reading: “A theology that is not nurtured by philosophy becomes a pure theological positivism. All you can do is keep repeating what has been said, but there’s no penetration, no deeper understanding. The truths of the faith call for reflection… Protestants very often go in for a very positivistic theology. Since Vatican II we have been tending in that direction. What’s interesting about the Second Vatican Council is that all the great figures of the Council were brought up on the Thomistic revival and they had metaphysics. It was said that the bishops sang “Should auld Aquinas be forgot!” Ratzinger, of course, is a poacher turned gamekeeper! He was one of the liberals of the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger was always an excellent theologian. I am not for any moment suggesting that he was heterodox.” (ibid. p.64.) This says a lot about doctrinaire, dogmatic and almost fascist positions as regards the certainty of one’s own beliefs. However, to be fair to the man, he is a sincere believer and a cardinal after all – the whole thing is part of the scheme of things to which he signed up as a priest and later as a cardinal. Not to defend it could be construed as the height of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

Then to read Professor Ivor Browne one one finds oneself on different ground altogether. Browne is not an orthodox believer at all. He is a sincere searcher for the truth and follows wherever both his head (intellect) and heart (intuitions, beliefs etc) lead him. His is refreshingly undogmatic stuff. “I refuse,” he says, “to sign up to certainties.” (op.cit., p. 22) The sheer level of intellectual honesty is at times breathtaking. His exchanges and questions are direct, sincere and humble at all times, e.g., “What does he mean by that?”…“I’ve never read him in detail.”… “I don’t like to use the word ‘belief.’ ” … “I would say that I would have a very eclectic view.” When asked about Lacan he says simply and disarmingly “I’ve never understood him.” (ibid., pp 11-29, passim)

About the Celtic Tiger he says rather insightfully: “This Celtic Tiger is quite frightening because the old religion has died and nothing is replacing it. There are no signs of any idealism.” (ibid., p. 26)

And finally, in response to the question as to whether he is happy or not, he replies again disarmingly, “No. I don’t think so… I don’t think it’s particularly important. That’s where we have gone wrong now, that we are searching for it. The need to be happy is an absurd notion.” (ibid., p. 29)

All of this I find riveting and interesting. Of course, Browne is no “atheist”. He’s probably a spiritual agnostic and Christian-Buddhist of sorts like me. In fact I cannot describe my beliefs as I grow older at all, save to say that I am refashioning and re-shaping them continually as I age. I am loathe to discard anything that gives meaning to my life. In like manner, Ivor Browne does, as a Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist, would subscribe to the fact that the meaning in life lies in the very quest for that meaning. Perhaps this is all we need to know. Perhaps also, all we need is the help of our fellow pilgrims on the way.

The above picture is one I took in the town of my birth - Roscrea - where the old is gradually accepting the new. The old ways are changing. A new world has begun for Ireland come of age as a multinational country.