Posts Tagged ‘religion’

(From Portrait of the Artist as a Young Women 2007ish)

In the beginning, I didn’t know suffering, only the lightness of moment, that eternal simultaneous descent and rise of sensation. My mother’s warm milk, the cold of tile. When dropping my rattle onto the pavement from my mother’s lap I clenched my fingers and tears stuck to my lips, but I did not think to form the sentence, that declaration: I am sad. This is sorrow.

There was no “I” at all. There was no separate self. All simply was. All was rattle. All was no rattle. All was tears and fists. All was my mom shushing shhh shhhh don’t cry don’t cry. There was no concept “I” so there was no suffering. The paucity of my language created for a world of immediacy. I need not try to transcend suffering, because it did not exist.

In time my skin showed itself a certain boundary between myself and the “other”. My hand touched another. That hand either pulled away or remained close. Other children entered or exited, behaved in ways I did not understand. I had a name. I was an I.

I made a space for suffering to catalogue my pain, to place those things I did not wish or will. Suffering took on dull tones of separation. It reproached me even as my father left, kissing my forehead, driving away. My face in the window felt like melting glass. I was a “me” to leave.

One afternoon, I sat by my mother watching my favorite show of numbers and letters, songs I sometimes danced to. My mother’s hand rested on my thigh and I fiddled with her fingers, her wedding band. An advertisement with a sad melody showed children my age crying. The children’s bellies swelled. Gray dust streaked their faces.

“These children are suffering,” my mother said. I didn’t understand.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they’re hungry,” my mother explained.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they’re suffering.”

With Eve and her apple, the Old Testament attributes suffering to sin; and in this way, sin and suffering were conceptually married. The pair could be spotted dancing together at parties, walking their dog through the park, holding hands in the check out line at the natural living store. They were a happy pair, one begat the other, until materialism, science, and a guy named Job came between them.

Job suffered profoundly. He lost his family and possessions. His body corrupted with pain and illness. His friends judged him: if he was running around with suffering, than he must be courting sin as well; but it turns out Job did not know sin. He was a righteous man and undeserving of misfortune. The advent of Job was the advent of a new conscious pairing: suffering and righteousness.

In the end, suffering ennobled Job because it tested him, it developed him further, it brought him closer to God. Jesus asks his followers to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, and to follow Him. This request, a predictive reference to His crucifixion, is no small thing. Christ’s slow procession along the Via Dolorosa was nothing but an excruciating trod towards death.

These saints would agree with the adage:  "No pain, no gain"

These saints would agree with the adage: "No pain, no gain"

At the point of taking up His own literal cross, Christ suffered grave wounds. He had lost such blood, he was unable to walk erect, the heavy splintered beam breaking through his shoulder’s muscle. Christ not only endured the epitome of physical suffering, solidifying the relationship between purity and suffering, but asks His disciples to do the same.

In pursuit of holiness, saints and other ascetics practice mortification of the flesh and other voluntary suffering.

They welcome suffering as to:

  • imitate Christ
  • resist mortal sins caused by the nature of the body
  • rely completely on the salvation, strength, and mercy of God
  • progress spiritually
  • embody a sacrifice to God
  • liberate themselves from the body.

Suffering is therefore a vehicle, a bitter sweet torture, stretching one out, pulling one’s limbs, muscles, sinew snapping taut and tauter making space for all that is holy, good, and beautiful. We complain when we suffer and yet there are some of us who cannot escape our suffering, we hold onto it, or rather surrender to its hold on us.

Nietzsche refers to the discipline of suffering, of great suffering, attributing to it all of man’s enhancements. From the tension of this stretching suffering imposes on to the unhappy soul, can arise strength, inventiveness and courage.

And while heady romanticists like Nietzsche, Dosteovsky and Allendey applaud the slow misery of internal(and external) pain, there exists an obvious amount of bright-eyed rationalists who differ.  Suffering is pain and pain is unpleasant.  Logically, suffering exists as an unwanted phenomena. Who would prefer sadness to elation? Who, in a healthy state of mind would choose misery over happiness?

The passion of the contemporary abolitionist is, like his or her ancestors, centered in liberation, but instead of liberating a literal slave from his or her confederate master, today’s abolitionist seeks to salvage the sufferer from his suffering. The Abolitionist Society is a nonprofit organization founded in 2002 by Jaime Savage, David Pearce, Pablo Stafforini and Sean Henderson seeking to eradicate all suffering not through poetry or speech, not through beauty, food, or medicine, but through the now exponential advances of biotechnology.

By way of genetic engineering, scientists claim to be approaching a place of power over sadness, in that by eliminating the toxic alleles rumored responsible for wide spread suffering, by unraveling the molecular substrates of emotion, biotechnology, allied to nanomedicine can conceivably control the distribution of world happiness and misery. Traditional casuistry will lose relevance as scientists master the brain’s reward centers, ensuring everyone a birth into life long bliss. Substrates of suffering and depression will be outright abolished, and we will reflect from our utopia back onto all our primitive sadness.

Reading of this group’s ideals, faced with the Miss America wishes and noble selfless gestures made by charitable organizations and churches, I’ve had to ask myself what makes me human? It is not without an embarrassed rush of shame that I confess, that maybe, perhaps, I’m not so quick to relinquish my pain. While these utilitarian biotechnologists mean well, they only want what’s best after all, I cannot help but bristle, but wrap a protecting forearm over my chest as if to protect what’s buried deep within, as if it were a physical globe made of black blood and space swelling within my chest cavity at times so big I could blink and see it behind my eyes. Perhaps it is not the suffering I covet, but rather the capacity for suffering, which inevitably enriches my existence. It heightens my day-to-day experience. It produces a shadow for all my light.

Miss America would most likely have wished success to both types of Abolitionists.

Miss America would most likely have wished success to both types of Abolitionists.

Suffering maintains the intensity of my private emotional world. It saves me from mere commonplace. It is familiar and still rich.

Is it in pursuit of God that man endures suffering or in pursuit of suffering man endures God? If I had the power to abolish all human suffering, would I do it? It frightens me that I hesitate.

But if we look for truths in our mythologies, we see the origin of consciousness out of pain, and from consciousness, a new capacity for experience. Again and again we see suffering create consciousness. We step on a nail and reflexively draw back our foot, the sharp pain causing us awareness of the inside of one heel.

My suffering is a right–A wrong right.

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This past Tuesday, my son was born.  Between visits with family, feedings, and swooning over the little guy, I haven’t found time to write a new post.  As not to neglect InconvenientBody, I’ve decided to post an essay from my first book (unpublished, most likely, never published–first books tend to end up that way).

I’m aiming to reestablish the time for essays by month two of baby’s life.  Until then, blog reader, stay with me.  I will find odds and ends to post and I won’t forget you.

When I was sleeping on couches, I carried my journals, all forty-six of them, in a blue suitcase.  I didn’t own a lot of things those days.  Maybe two sweaters, a pair of jeans, some books and a bath towel.

Ownership and its objects provide people with substance.  Our identities often merge with our possessions.  Whether it is a sweater or a car, a person can become so allied with an object that it becomes an extension of their selves.  My father wept the day he sold his Harley Davidson.  I felt transparent when I sat on my glasses, breaking them irreparably.   Displaced and eerie, I searched one week until I found similar frames.
Possessions offer us individuality; as does a schedule and the regularity thereof.  An example:  if I have a job I must attend, or a mandatory meeting, if I jog every morning at seven and watch  Faulty Towers come night, than I am somebody– an employed meeting attendee who is mildly healthy  and enjoys David Lynch.   I identify myself most concretely by means of external things and events with which other people can relate.

By associating myself with a concrete object or habit, I allow for the other to extrapolate regarding my nature, my interests, my etcetera.
When I was sleeping on couches I did not have a regular schedule.  There was no certain place I had to be.  Sometimes I went to a café, drank coffee, and scribbled on paper something I hoped would matter.  Sometimes I woke and remained on the couch, drinking coffee and scribbling on paper something I hoped would matter.  Sometimes I drank gin, tonic and lime, smoked cigarettes and tried to interact with other people; but usually I retired early to a couch and scribbled on paper something I hoped would matter.
One early evening the transience of daylight heaped to my transience of life and I forgot who I was.  Sure, I was a mildly neurotic writer, drifting from couch to couch, saving money, until I could afford to finish my possibly mediocre manuscript; I was a coffee drinker with a blue suitcase filled with notebooks, but what else?  Was that it?  At some indistinguishable point in time I had fallen out of my story or it had fallen out of me; and the facts of my life became fiction while the lies, the fantasies and the flights, became truth.  I couldn’t remember one from the other.  I could no longer sort through them all.  The lie looked the same as the truth.  There was nothing left to test them, nothing to use to distinguish one from the other..  I was so entrenched in my self as a “writer” that I had detached myself from everything else, everything concrete.  I walked to the nearest mirror and looked.  There was my face.  That face was mine.  My face.  I tried calling my mother and left a confused message marked urgent on her machine.  I returned to that particular sofa that particular evening and wished I wasn’t alone in that particular apartment.
I opened the suitcase I carried with me and found a journal marked 1994, Age 12.  I lapped through the pages like a nomad lapping from a desert oasis.  There I was, or rather, there was a self-created version of me, splashed over the yellow pages.  I had never before read my journals, save for the quick reference, and it was a strange experience connecting the broken narrative scrawl with myself, the woman, the face, the writer presently reading.
Twelve-year-old-me inscribed a list entitled Boys That Have Asked Me Out on the notebook’s inside cover.  Beneath this title were six names.  One name was Seth Riley, my old next-door neighbor.  Seth played the drums and listened to Nirvana.  He had small green eyes and white teeth.  I use to walk to Seth’s house after school where we made prank phone calls to strangers and ate macaroni and cheese out of pots with large wooden spoons; but one thing disconcerted me–Seth had never asked me out.  I had lied in my own journal.
I was never one to share my journals.  Much the opposite, I wrote with one arm obscuring all possible views.  I kept the notebook on me at all times, always in my backpack in a secret zipper pocket inside a bigger zipper pocket inside my knapsack.  If I hadn’t intended for others to read of my recorded suitors, why had I exaggerated their number?
Twelve-year-old-me must have understood the process of immortality, and the recorder’s power over it; that the historian can decide how modulating, animate events solidify and become fact.  The person who takes the idea and manifests it abides the awesome power of transforming the idea, bears the ability to move the subjective into the realm of the objective artifact.  This is how our culture remembers.
For the historian, whose authority is guaranteed a certain attendance, a flattering manipulation of facts seems, if not appropriate, at least justifiable; but what of the individual functioning within his or her private limits?  What is the purpose of manipulation then?
When an idea that is fleeting manifests as a physical relic, it is bestowed a sense of immortality. The art object implies permanence and legacy.  It is concrete and communicable to others.  Twelve-year-old-me recognized this, but to what end?  My journal had no assured spectators, and still I pursued the immortal.  By actively manipulating the facts of my life to a flattering extent, I was aware, then as I am now, of The Audience–the need for The Audience and the need to please The Audience.  The Audience is the other, collective or individual, actual or abstract, cast in the role as witness.  The Audience witnesses nothing in particular.  There is no necessary event or attribute the audience must attend; to the contrary, The Audience is necessary as witness in a vague sense, a grand domain is that of The Audience, one of existential proportions.  The Audience is witness to it all.

The Audience’s presence dispels all the existential bleakness that threatens to annihilate one with meaninglessness and the soul’s ultimate isolation.  I may know that I exist if I have been observed.  The Audience perceives me, therefore I am.  The Audience as witness gives one’s life a cohesiveness and sense of worth, a sense of validation and relevance.
Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) asked if a tree were to fall in a forest, with no one as witness, would it make a sound.   Berkeley, an extreme proponent and lover of the mind, would argue the tree makes no sound outside of the sound that is perceived.  The tree carries no consequence without its audience.  But all things must have an audience, and Berkeley would continue that the witnessless tree is saved its mute demise by the penultimate perceiver of all: God.  According to Berkeley, God’s perception, or God as The Audience, sustains all reality outside of human perception.

George Berkeley would wonder if this tree made a sound when it fell.

George Berkeley would wonder if this tree made a sound when it fell.

When I was young, outside of the diary (which was always the main thing), God and my mother fulfilled my need for The Audience.  God’s rumored omnipresence, his unimpeachable comprehension entitled me as His holy child, to be immediately and eternally known.  Every hair on my head was accounted for, my fate already written in the stars.  All I needed was to show up, behave, and believe.  I was known in the deepest sense.  I didn’t even have to know myself.
My mother as The Audience was larger than life.  I found myself compulsive with the need to share myself with her.  If I did not tell her about something, than it was negligible.  It was as if it had never happened.  As I aged, this phenomena worked differently.  I discovered if I were to exaggerate something, say the amount of boys vying for my attention, and told her of it, if she accepted it, believed it as fact, then it became fact.
I considered fact as elusively dependent on perspective, so if:

I believed something
The Audience perceived it as true
It was real.

Within the relationship between myself and The Audience, the facts of my life reverberated and became truth.
Our need for The Audience is indisputable.  We must be seen, and if we cease to believe in a God or in the authority and ultimate wisdom of our mother, The Audience must be replaced.
It is possible for us to manifest The Audience in many ways.  Some prefer the lover’s gaze to ground them in reality, and thus invest much of themselves into their romantic counterpart.  It is a common thing to hear one lover swoon to the other weighty remarks such as “you complete me” or “I am nothing without you”.  A lover loses his beloved and the loss is catastrophic, inspiring an anguish that obscures all light.  The mournful lover laments the loss of his beloved as he would lament the cessation of his own life; and in some instances, this is how the loss culminates; the lover ends his existence, which he considers over the moment his beloved turns her back.  When we have someone, an other, to witness or, even better, to share our story, our story is all the more affirmed.  We are justified on a cosmic level when we love and are loved in return.
In another example, The Audience may be overbearing.  Like Big Brother, The Audience may be terrifying and uninvited.  But even in the case of a totalitarian, like Big Brother, our basest need is fulfilled:  We are seen.  We know we exist.
When our smallest, most insignificant gestures are observed they achieve literary justification.  Their existence is validated even as they are noted.  The effect is similar to what occurs when we place a frame around an image or object.  The frame works to draw a line of individuation around what is framed.  The article becomes unique and worthy of attention.  If an other observes the distinctive way you slice your banana over cereal in the morning, the action achieves a life of its own.  The action is a characteristic of you.  You feel special about the way you slice your banana in the morning.  It is unique and so are you.
It is possible to see The Audience scattered throughout all people in smaller portions, as it leaps from stranger to stranger.  I find myself projecting much importance onto the way a man in the corner of a bar smiles at me.  His expression seems especially empathetic.  He seems to understand me.
Maybe I imagine we have a connection.  Within connection there is always the mysterious presence of something bigger, some harmonizing, a God-like agent.  Thus, in this theoretical barroom scenario, The Audience is available two fold.  It is present in the man moving his eyes to mine, and in the mystical (fateful?) force that caused him to do so.
The Audience can take the shape of someone’s future readers, or if someone frequently indulges in delusions of grandeur, in the public as an indistinct whole, which is justification in the grandest way.

When I read my twelve-year-old-me journal, I was my own audience, simply by existing as a witness to myself.  I justified myself.  I gave myself existence.  I was my own god.
I observed myself as one would observe a character.  I watched events occur and this curious character react and develop accordingly.  This character, this girl seemed a predictable outcome of all events and people creating her, but also a result of all that she was creating.  I watched this strange character develop, rushing forward as if to hand myself, the present observer, some metaphysical baton:  Here you are, take over, this is you, sitting on my friend’s sofa, acknowledging only time and experience separated twelve-year-old-me with present-day-writing-me.
As the Audience, my own audience, I resembled the ouroboros, a serpent holding the tip of its tail between its jaws, swallowing itself.  I was extinguishing myself while I made myself bigger.
Emily found me the next afternoon cornered on her love seat surrounded by fifteen or so leafed-through journals.  My eyes stung when I opened them.  She suggested I take a break, bribing me with a free burrito at our favorite restaurant.

“So what’s it like?” She asked me en route to lunch.

“Like erasing and drawing myself at once.”

“It must feel strange.”

“I left so much out in these journals.  There’s so much missing.  It’s almost fictional, or maybe it’s my memory that’s fictional.  I have this idea of myself and I think that idea is accurate, but then there’s all this stuff I wrote down that doesn’t match up.  It’s contradictory.  I’m not sure which, my memory or what I wrote is more true.”

“I can imagine.”

“I mean, there are a lot of stories there.  It’s almost like the stories are more true than I am.  I can’t figure out if I created the stories or if the stories created me.  And now I’m displaced from everything.  I feel as if I’m watching myself, as this character in these stories, and I can choose to believe that they’re true, and feel all the emotional texture that accompanies the roles they involve, but I can just as easily not be involved and watch myself.

‘I can’t figure out if the stories I’m involved in and the roles I play in those stories are unbearably heavy and inseparable from who I am, or if they’re weightless and negligible.  Not really important at all.”


We stopped at a crosswalk to let a girl cross.  Emily stared out the front windshield.  She said, “You know, if you stand at this crosswalk and press the button it automatically gives the traffic a red light and you, the pedestrian, the go ahead.  I mean immediately.  You walk up, and bam, red light.”

“I didn’t know that.”

I realized how much I’d been talking.

“I’ve always wanted to take a day and do nothing but cross this street.  All day long.  Back and forth.  Just to make people wait for me.”

“I know exactly what you mean.”

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