Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Off To Somewhere - Chapter Two: The Longing Way Home

Here's Chapter Two of The Longing Way Home. All the conditions listed with Chapter One are still in place. I hope we can keep this work going for the near future, anyway. You can help me immeasurably by letting me in on your thoughts, suggestions and questions. Or just by letting me know you're reading it as I write it. I consider it a joint effort since it explores what I think is a basic, primal human connection to God. Thanks and blessings. Ted


The title of this books, The Longing Way Home is meant to suggest my conviction that all through our lives we are on the way somewhere even when we don't completely know quite where or even seriously think much about it beyond choosing a college, a marriage partner and a job or career. Usually we're a bit like Woody Allen who says about himself, "Wherever I am, I wish I was somewhere else."

Our somewhere else is usually not a geographical place so much as it is a higher rung we desire on the status ladder with various degrees of intensity and tend to label with variations on the theme "Our Way of Life." We're constantly urged by every well meaning group to take the readily accessible ways, including "education, hard work, ingratiation, connections and conformity," to get to that somewhere which supposedly anybody who is anybody is headed toward except ... "you know, those who aren't our kind." (And who exactly are they? Martians maybe?)

Still, life as we live it isn't as dependably structured or easily defined as that. As is life itself, our particular lives are an always unfolding, dynamic process, never a static, stable condition. However imperceptibly, that process conditions our thinking, our emotions, our behavior, our relationships, our self-definition and direction. Much of our process of going somewhere is so routine it's almost knee-jerk. and usually relatively short term but fairly repetitive. It involves the sort of logistical choices, plans, intentions and schedules we put together as we set out for the day, or a week, or whatever the next stage is in the drama of our life.

Our short term motives and objectives in that process are quite specific and relate to our work or a meeting, a shopping expedition, an appointment, schlepping kids around, standing in lines. going to social events, the various activities it takes to keep things going without very much reflection on the more crucial somewhere we're headed beyond the checklist in our head or date books. For the most part, any larger or over-arching or undergirding sense of where or what somewhere is gets mostly taken for granted, tucked away in that seldom opened file, "Way of Life," the direction toward which we assume everyone else is generally living, too, as well as how and why.

But the hard truth is that neglected examination of our way of life can slowly change that way until it becomes something different than we assume or profess it to be. Even as we implement our short term choices, plans and goals they continually change because of unexpected encounters, interruptions, conflicts, claims that alter our thinking and decisions however slightly or severely. Those alterations require adjustments in the how, what and why of our seeking as we proceed both in the present moment and in the immediate future.

Those adjustments, however, are usually only practical ones and are made with pretty much the same proximate goals or desires that drive us. Those sort of experiences are so familiar to us that we scarcely give them much thought. We come to deal with them reflexively rather than reflectively, that is, without considering the cumulative impact they have on the way we live or how they dull our consideration of the somewhere toward which, however subconsciously, we might have thought we were headed. In the haste and swamp of all kinds of information, much of it just huckerism, we can become numbed to ourselves as well as the people around us, reducing everyone to objects and just part of the landscape.

An example of what I'm referring to is from an experience which Annie Ernaux had in a subway car in Paris and reported in her haunting little book, Things Seen: "A voice sounds in the RER: 'I'm unemployed. I'm living ... with my wife and child, we have 25 francs to live on a day.' What follows is the story of ordinary poverty, repeated probably ten times an hour, in the same tone of voice. The man is selling Le Reverbere, a newspaper. The words express humility: 'I'm not asking a lot from you, just a bit of small change to help me.' He makes his way through the car. No one buys the newspaper. When it comes time to get out, the man shouts threateningly: 'Have a great day and a good weekend.' No one looks up. The irony of poor people does not count ..." *1 Then over time and almost unnoticed, no one counts. Numb's the word.

That scene could be in any city in the United States from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, Chicago to Phoenix. and smaller towns around the country. How often has something similar but slightly different, happened to you midpoint on your way to somewhere? Probably we don't keep track, or remember, or just lose count because those experiences simply become minor annoyances, like some little pile of trash on the sidewalk we have to walk around or a flecks of lint to brush off the shoulder of our ever distracted humanity. Numb's the word and slowly becomes our reality.

So little by little a great deal changes in and for us. The sad thing is that is exactly what we're numb to. In the process, the somewhere we assumed we were going toward moves a little further away and in a different direction while we unthinkingly keep changing our course in yet another direction a little at a time, just enough to add another mini-degree to the cumulative and debilitating change in the way of life we thought we were living even as we go on living it anyway, one way or another?

The irony is that our successes in living the process of "our way of life" can be might even more deceptive yet instructive than our assorted irritations and anesthetizing experiences with it. What our way of life successes or achievements reveal, sooner or later, is that none of them really satisfy or quiet the longing in us. Instead, they continually pose the unanswered, if not unanswerable, question, "What's enough?" which leads quickly to another, "Will more of it make any real difference?" The answer to the second question is, "No, almost never."

Let's take, for example, the exciting, pleasurable, delightful experience of sexual relations, one of the most desired and intimate experiences of our lives. It's often referred to as "making love" which it really is not! At best, sexual relations express love rather than making it. And Yes, they can also just be pleasurable, enjoyable activities on their own. But sadly, they can also disappointing and dehumanizing in using of others for our own ends or even be a brutal, criminal act of rape.

Still, the point is, when they are truly intimate and satisfying in the moment, few human experiences can put us more in touch with our longing than do our sexual experiences. However close, however sensual, however fulfilling, however wonderful they are, or just because they include those good qualities, sexual relations seem finally to leave us sensing that we've been brushed by something that tapped into a persistent but vague longing for something mysteriously deeper and more fulfilling but always just out of reach .

Of course, wanting more sexual experiences is programed into us as is hunger, sleep, survival. And yet, however many we have, no number of sexual experiences can truly quiet or satisfy our longing. Now, many "experts" assert that the reason is that the desire for sex is for the survival of the human race. That's true but it misses the point here. As I stated earlier, my point is that desire is not the same as longing. If we pay close attention to our longing we sense it isn't really for more of something, it's for something different, something beyond or deeper than any finite, limited experience can be.

What our finite experiences can do is either orient us in the direction our longing mysteriously summons us toward, or they can misdirect us to something less than that. That's the point of my using the example of our sexual experience. I think the same essential truth holds for other temporarily realized desires such as wealth, status, learning, stylish appearance, popularity, material possessions, honors, leadership positions, whatever is on your list or anyone else's.

An experience Annie Ernaux reports in her book gives a hint of how our finite experiences an nudge us in the direction our deepest longing calls us toward. She writes: "Today, for a few minutes, I tried to see all the people I ran into, all the strangers. It seemed to me that, as I observed these people in detail, their existence suddenly became very close to me, as if I were touching them. Were I to continue such an experiment, my vision of the world and of myself would turn out to be radically transformed. Perhaps I would disappear."

However much we talk about wanting our lives to be transformed, we aren't too
clear about what that means except perhaps being vaguely better, more peaceful, content, happy, less anxious or whatever. But what Ernaux suggests about her vision of the world and of herself being radically transformed is quite scary to most of us. What would that be like? What would it mean to "disappear"? Who wants to do that? Intentionally? Thanks, but no thanks. That cannot be in any way what my or anyone's longing could be about. If it is, I'll stick with temporary satisfactions.

Okay, we can leave it at that but with an uneasy feeling. Perhaps our uneasy feeling might be tempered if we gave some thought to what Ernaux might mean when she says: "Perhaps I would disappear" if she continued with her experiment of trying to see all the people she ran into on one day. Or at least, if we considered what I think it could mean to say that.

I think the "I" she mentions and means might disappear is not her "self" but rather her self-strangulating entrapment in her ego, her stupefying preoccupation with her own protective, isolating, little personal, private concerns. I think the "I" she refers to would disappear by expanding and deepening into more significant relationships with other human beings.

That is, I think it means her "I" would begin to disappear as an isolated, self-promoting, entitled me first "Way of Life" toward a who in hell knows somewhere. Maybe, her true self, like Lazarus, would reappear from the tomb of her disappeared "I' and become a person of love and in love. I think she would lose her "I" in order to find herself, as Jesus said was necessary, because we are essentially alive only in relationship with others and creation itself.

Now, you may be thinking I'm trying to make too much out of too little, that I'm trying to make a hearty stew from too few ingredients in my effort to examine the process of our "Way of Life." As result, it may seem I've concocted only a thin gruel of unwarranted conclusions concerning the nature of our persistent, mysterious experiences of longing.

Well, that's certainly possible. But it's only Chapter Two, after all, and we're still trying to figure things out together. Like all process, writing a book can hit snags or wander track which reminds me of a line in Edward Albee's quirky play, "The Zoo Story." Maybe you know it.

Jerry, a strange young man in his thirties encounters Peter, forty something man in a park near the zoo in New York City. The two get into somewhat disputatious conversational jousting. When Peter asks Jerry what he was doing before he came to the park to go to the zoo. Jerry answers, "I took the subway down to the Village so I could
 walk all the way up Fifth Avenue to the zoo. It's one of those 
things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very
 long distance out of his way to come back a short distance

In some way, trying to find the longing way home may involve variations of going a long way out of the way to come back a short distance correctly. To my knowledge, the subject, or experience, of longing is not one with many, if any, even sketchy road maps so this effort is not only an experiment, it's also an exploration. It's not always clear what the correct distance is, so to determine that requires what may seem is going out of the way to explore territory and connected issues which it turns out are really critical.

So I end this chapter with another hint about longing for you to ponder. It is another vignette from Annie Ernaux in Things Seen. It's a different version of the earlier one about the man begging in a subway car and no one pays any attention to him. This one is about a woman in a another subway car at Christmastime.

"The subway car is full. A woman's voice is raised, powerful. 'Act a little human.' Absolute silence. A terrible voice, that tells of her misfortune, accuses people of selfishness. their asses nice and warm, etc. No one looks at her or responds to her anger, because she is telling the truth.
"On the platform, she collides with people carrying bags of Christmas presents, hurls abuse at them, 'You'd be better off giving money to the unfortunate rather than buying all that crap.' Again the truth.
"But we do not give to do good, we give to be loved. Giving to a homeless person just to prevent him from dying altogether is an intolerable idea, and it would not make him love us anyway." *3
And that, I suppose, is another truth. So what hint is that about longing? Well, I think, contrary to the song version, longing may be a hint of what love's got to do with it, even if Ernaux is right in saying giving to a poor person would not make him or her love us anyway. But there's another possibility here, another pointer toward longing, which is that such giving might be a start at loving your self. A start. Didn't Jesus say we should love our neighbor as our self? Hmm.

*1 Things Seen: page 17 University of Nebraska Press Lincoln and London
Ernaux, Annie

*2 Things Seen: page 13 University of Nebraska Press Lincoln and London
Ernaux, Annie
*3 Things Seen: page 46 University of Nebraska Press Lincoln and London
Ernaux, Annie

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading every post. Thank you for this gift. This is a lot to think about for this tired mom, and I'm grateful.