Monday, July 19, 2010

Start Squinting More- Chapter Three: The Longing Way Home


You may not have wondered about it but I want to explain the long hiatus since I've written another chapter of our book, The Longing Way Home (TLWH). Actually, so far it hasn't been "our" book since I've received no questions or suggestions to ponder and/or include in it which is not exactly encouraging.

Never-the-less, I'll keep on keeping on even when there's an occasional lapse in the process. The most recent one happened when I signed on to write an article for another publication which took time and thought (and required more of both than I assumed it would) away from TLWH.

Another was a rupture in a waste pipe from a second floor bathroom that damaged the kitchen and basement powder and laundry rooms and the repairs are still underway in those rooms and there is dislocation everywhere.

Even so, I'm back and here we go again. Thanks for your patience and whatever comments you're moved to send which always mean much to me.
Blessings in abundance. Ted


I keep remembering something novelist Leo Rosten said: "We see the world not as it is, but as we are." I find that statement persuasive, yet disconcerting, especially if we include that we see each other as part of the world we see as we are. Mostly we see each other hurriedly, superficially, partially, even a bit suspiciously as critics or rivals, often as someone to be won over,used or defended against rather than as human beings to be respected.

So we live almost constantly in relative degrees of tension, strife and anxiety in a world of "others" we readily criticize as flawed, even threatening, without acknowledging that we see them as we are. The problem is that the way we see them provokes them into seeing and responding to us that same way, too, and that causes all sorts of antagonism and acting out behavior by a majority of us.

But the insidious quirk is that we tend to see ourselves as the world sees us, that is, as others or society or culture see us. And there's the creep of the astigmatic view! The trouble is that we collude in seeing ourselves as the "world" sees us. That is, we start seeing ourselves as objects, as Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, pro this or anti that, consumers, upper, middle, lower class, poor, white, black, Latino, successes, failures, saved, damned, whatever, the list goes on ad nauseum.

Here are two somewhat extreme examples: if society, culture, marketers, advertisers, see women as sex objects, women begin to either see and act that way themselves or risk being seen as dull, unattractive loser, old maid types -- until at least some women don't! If society, culture, marketers, advertisers see men as insensitive, unemotional, aggressive, belligerent, men start to either see and act that way themselves or risk being seen as geeky, undesirable, impotent wimps --until at least some men don't. Keep those "until at least some don't" in mind as we move deeper into this chapter.

One consequence of seeing ourselves as others see us is that it cons us into adopting some variety of one or the other, or an unstable mix, of two deceptions:
The first deception is being drawn into and acting out the illusion that we're more that we really are, more virtuous, innocent, right, faithful, intelligent, liberated than we are. or could ever be, as imperfect, limited beings, and in that process earning graduate degrees in hypocrisy and emptiness;
The second deception is submitting to the view that we're less than we really are, not competent or smart or good or creative or lovable or whatever enough to matter much and thus spending much of our lives compensating and hiding and all the while being carriers of anger, self-pity and gloom. Both of those views muffle and/or misshape our longing and mangle how we see ourselves, others and the world.

How and why does such astigmatism happen? For clues, go back to Adam, Eve and the serpent in Eden. Remember, in the story God first created Adam from dust, then from Adam's rib, created Eve as his equal partner and put them in the garden to be together: capable, sentient, unashamed, wondrous and beautiful in their nakedness. God entrusted them to tend the garden and thus participate in creating it, i.e. to share in God's creating activity. Out of love, God gave them each other, their freedom, talents, purpose, responsibility, accountability … and, yes, longing, longing as a faint, mysterious clue to who they were, and whose. That was how they were to see themselves and it was enough.

The ugly snag is that isn't how they saw themselves. They didn't quite trust God, or even begin to sense the mysterious depth of the longing mixed in the breath of life God breathed into them. There was just one thing God told them not to do which was mess with the tree in the middle of the garden. That did it and off they went to the middle of the garden to check the tree out. From the first, they misconstrued their longing and attached it to the tree's forbidden fruit.

When along slithered the serpent, they were ripe for seduction. All the serpent had to do was recast their longing by persuading them to see themselves as able to be like God. All they had to do was to dump their charge to be tenders of the garden and eat the off-limit fruit of that suddenly irresistible tree. The only ones who could keep them from doing that were themselves and they weren't about to. They preferred the image of seeing themselves like God so they chucked their charge and chomped away on the fruit.

Only that didn't make them like God. Instead, it swamped them in anxiety and shame so they quickly covered their nakedness with fig leaves to try to hide themselves and pose as though they were no different from the other animals in the garden. They must have thought that would make them no more guilty for their action than animals who had no capacity for such guile.

When asked by God what they'd done, Adam and Eve came up with the first variation of fig leaves by blaming each other and the serpent, trying to somehow hide from God and from themselves. What they failed to see was that in essential ways they were really not like the other animals in the garden. Here's how they were different:
First, God continued to address them as the human beings He/She created however badly they'd acted.
Second, by laying out to them the consequences of their betrayal and sending them out of the Garden, God confirmed their responsibility and attendant accountability as human beings.
Third, God confirmed their continuing worth and the capacities he'd endowed them with by giving them difficult tasks to do in order to provide for themselves.
Fourth, and most importantly, God went with them, giving them clothes to replace their sticky fig leaves, a clear metaphor for covering their shame with mercy and grace!

But Adam and Eve were so blinded by anxiety and drained by shame, they missed all that and what it meant about who they were. I wonder, "What would be different about how they viewed themselves and God if they had just 'fessed up to they'd done and their accountability for their abuse of their freedom, and asked God to help them use their compromised but still ample freedom more responsibility and vigilantly in the future?" The answer doesn't matter for them but never-the-less is relevant to us. We'll stumble onto that later, so keep it in mind.

Why all this fuss about an old Bible story? At least two reasons. The first is because it's true even if not literal. It confronts us with real, crucial questions about life and ourselves. Here are a few which I hope you will think over and come up with your answers:
  1. Hasn't Adam and Eve's story been repeated in every generation of human history?
  2. In some variation, how much of it is part of your personal history?
  3. How often are we tricked into seeing ourselves as like God if we'll just buy the views of society's hucksters and the mirage of promises of they make?
  4. How often do we see ourselves as victims, blame others for whatever's wrong and excuse ourselves and, in the name of security and self-defense, advocate and act out that view of ourselves in nasty ways that actually harm us and those around us?
  5. How often are we blinded by anxiety, drained by shame, driven to hide in pretense and hypocrisy from our longing and miss its faint signals of our real identity?
  6. If we admit that we are not like God, does that make us the same as the other animals of creation with an excuse to live a "dog eat dog" existence?
  7. However the millions of intersections and turns were negotiated to bring us from the "Big Bang" to where we are, like it or not, don't we have responsibility for each other and other creatures in the garden, that is, in creation itself?
  8. Isn't it possible, even probable, that false ways of seeing ourselves end up keeping us from seeing that the essence of our difference from other animals is what our longing is about and who we are not only meant to be but really are in spite of our foibles and fallibilities, if we look hard enough and speak our "don't" to the way of seeing ourselves as the world does, with our collusion, which is superficially, partially, distortedly, defensively, destructively?
Okay, time's up. Probably my answers are obvious and support the point of this book. But just so you can be sure, here they are:
1. You betcha 2. Not in every detail 3. Causes my nightly acid reflux 4. 364 days a year, except July 4th. I'm patriotic after all 5. Only before and after breakfast. 6. Only occasionally at ball games 7. Earthling types, Yes, but not Klingon types 8. Absolutely but the question is too long and it's tough losing big bucks saying, "Don't."

If you got at least 6 right, we can move right along. If you got less than 6 right, we can also move right along. After all, this is about thinking and reflecting together about longing, not necessarily agreeing about things.

So, the second reason for the Adam and Eve fuss comes with a quote from theologian Reinold Niebuhr: "Evil is done ultimately not by evil men but by good men who do not know themselves." In Niebuhr's day, the term "men" referred to human beings so don't get hung up by his chauvinist terminology. And don't get distracted by arguing whether his assertion includes "all" evil. Even some is quite enough and to our point. Niebuhr is addressing the human condition in both its personal and social dimensions. Not to know one's self is to overlook and/or disregard essential truths about ourselves which warps how we see, think, feel and act and leads to destructive (evil) consequences for others as well as ourselves.

Here's how poet Robert Frost echoed Niebuhr's evocative insight: "Something we were withholding made us weak/ Until we found out that it was ourselves."(1) What is it we withhold if not honest, critical. penetrating, balanced self-knowledge? The truth is all of us are both participants in nature and time, and also have intimations of transcendence and the eternal. That is our consecrated and challenging place in creation. It is awesome to be human and, at the same time, it is exceedingly difficult to keep our balance as such. It always has been. We tend to keep trying to reach up to be like God or squirm down to indulge, then excuse, our lowest animalistic impulses. Either way we lose our balance and crash. Every one of us can describe the wreckage.

It is our mistaken view of ourselves that makes us weak in ways that are dangerous. We exaggerate our capacities and disguise or excuse our limitations and that makes us defensive, self-righteous, entitled, angry, manipulative. Those traits often lead to commit dozens of kinds of violence from lies, slurs and accusations to discrimination, exploitation and oppression to guns, bombs and missiles.

How do we "find out" it's ourselves that make us weak and dangerous? One way is to start squinting more often, squinting at the world, at others, at ourselves which means to look a little askance, obliquely, at an angle, off to the side, which isn't way and where we usually look at life or ourselves. Remember when I said earlier to keep those "until at least some don't" women and men in mind? Well, some people do squint is why they don't see themselves the way the "world" does. They see themselves more truly.

If I now quote Emily Dickinson to advance the point, it may seem I'm on some show-off poetry roll here except that it's often writers, artists and poets who show why squinting matters so much. That's what Dickinson does in her poem,, only she uses the word "slant" instead of squint but it means the same thing.

"Tell all the truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise.

"As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanations kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind."(2) ***

*** Comments on poem:
* I think Dickinson uses the word "Circuit" to suggest circling truth to see it from differing, unusual angles, or see it "slant" -- which is what I mean by squinting which precedes telling.
** I interpret "Explanations kind" as telling truth, not lies, to children in simpler ways to ease their fears which truth can do when told compassionately and that applies to adults as well. See Jesus and parables.
*** As I said, I believe to "tell all the truth … slant" implies first seeing it that way which is necessarily "gradually," in order. first to integrate it and then to avoid blindness.

I believe squinting is the way to keep our balance as humans who teeter between two poles. One pole is being inescapably part of, but not completely bound by, the the complex, stunning processes of nature for which we're grateful while often falling for its baser seductions of self-indulgence, unbridled hunt for gratification and cruel preying on others.

The other pole of our teeter is truly being unlike other creatures of nature and having the extraordinary capacity to experience moments of transcendence, enlightenment, moral discernment and the realization of our responsibilities for all of life, while often succumbing to the delusion of the claim to posses Godlike knowledge, judgement, moral certitude, spiritual superiority and requiring the deference of others or their vilification.

All that teetering and tripping up makes maintaining our balance in life a tough but essential challenge. I hold that it requires squinting as often as possible, squinting to see gradually, through lifetime, our longing as a core truth of us, our primal, indelible link to our Creator no matter how numerous, various and frequent are the illusions to which we attach it by not squinting at ourselves.

One serious caution concerning Dickinson's plea to "Tell all the truth but tell it slant …" applies to the word "all." If and when anyone … anyone … claims to know or tell "all" the truth, starting running away as fast as you can, especially if it's "all the truth" from or about God, as in "straight from God's lips to theirs" about who's saved and who isn't, who's in and who's out, who's going to heaven and who to hell, what God absolutely wants us to do about what, when, where and to whom -- except love them as ourselves which includes far from all the answers to the "how" questions we're left to figure out. So the "all the truth" folks give spirituality, ethics, theology, religion, Christianity, churches, and especially God, a bad rep.

In fairness, the illusion of infallibility also plagues people who argue that "all the truth" resides in the "fact" that since there is no way to prove the existence of God by logic, reason, or scientific research, it proves the contrary or negative, namely that there is no God and ultimately everything, i.e. "all the truth" concerning the what and why and how of creation, human life, consciousness and experience, can and will result from logic and scientific experimentation and inquiry. The response to such supposedly infallible insistence about "all truth," is to ask, "Well, to begin with, what about a totally conclusive explanation of why there is anything rather than nothing?" Since there isn't one, that's always a stumper even to such narrow-vision rationalists who's intransigence gives reason as well as science, education, art, music, creativity and sacrificial love a bad rep.

Here, then, is the conundrum of our human existence: of the incredible number of what we human beings can do and know, "all" and "everything" are not among them; not about nature, not about human history in large sweep or small particulars, not the universe or every element of earth, not even about ourselves. Even when we squint at ourselves, or others, we can never see or know all or everything about us or them. As mortals, we simply cannot completely transcend the boundaries of time and space that necessarily define us. It is precisely those inescapable "limits" that make our longing such a gift, such a clue, faint as it is, to who and what we are. We cannot know/experience/see all or everything but we can know and see enough essential truth to dazzle us to live abundantly.

As mortals, seeing and "telling ... the truth slant", that is, squinting at ourselves from as many angles as we can, involves coming gradually to a glimmer of truth that dazzles. The word is "gradually" which emphasizes the finite limitations that apply to us as humans. It suggests that temples gradualness requires patience, trust, courage, humility and honesty. Our squinting is never finished because our longing is never over no matter how much we ignore, distort, misdirect it. That's why our longing is a primal link of mortals to the eternal, mysterious God who created us in whatever way it happened, and keeps happening with our participation because love gives freedom to the beloved while holding them accountable while not abandoning them.

So after all this pondering and floundering, where are we? Surprise, surprise: how about back to my after the fact (okay, story) question about Adam and Eve scratching in their fig leaves, stammering their excuses to God without a squint in mind? Now the question gets put to us, "now" meaning hourly, daily, constantly, even when ignored: "What could/would be different about how you/we see yourself/ourselves and God if you/we just fessed up to the messes you/we make of life and accept accountability for the abuse of your/our freedom, and asked God to help you/us to use your/our chronically shortsighted but still squint-able use of freedom more responsibility and vigilantly to make things better for you/us/others?

Here are some possible answers from which to choose yours:
a) No difference. b) It depends. c) Maybe a little to me, not much to others. d) Some. e) Who knows for sure? f) Worth a try. g) Why bother to find out, things are bad/good enough as is?
h) Can I do the "ask God" part without the "fess up, accept" part? i) Don't understand the question.

I'd say the only suspect answers are a) and g). I hesitate to rank the others but prefer f). But the point goes deeper and is more elusive. The point is about longing which eludes answers and has more to do with the certainty part of uncertainty. Okay, that's really oblique, slant, a squint eyed view of who we are. There is a certain sense of direction, or filtering process, about uncertainty which gives uncertainty a certain positive quality, a gradual truth dazzle about what isn't certain that we take as being so when it isn't, things we settle in with or for rather than going on in uncertainty with our longing for what we can't satisfy but which keeps summoning us and, one way or another, won't leave us alone.

There are many images that might partially fit the ambiguity of our longing and so of our view of ourselves. I think "home" intimates it best because home refers to where we come from and where we long to be or go, not necessarily our literal home but something at once more inclusive and elusive. When I was a kid, my mother did needle work and she made one that was framed and hung in the living room. It included words from Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave but not our hearts. The link may lengthen but it never parts." At least that's how I remember them and in significant measure the words are right and stretch past memory into imagination, intimation of something even more real than we consider reality to be. It has to do with those faint finger prints our Creator leaves on our souls, like a mother leaves on our hearts, prints that point to something present but beyond our grasp. Yes, it's a mystery, a holy mystery, the mystery of God, a truth that dazzles gradually and partially lest it blind us and turn God into some kind of celestial seeing eye dog.

One next to last word about longing and home for now. Home isn't Eden. We may fantasize about home that way but it isn't really some idyllic, comfortable, beautiful, innocent place or time we long for as if our history and identity doesn't matter at all. Remember, it wasn't Eden or God that changed because of Adam and Eve's distorted view of themselves and each other. It as their betrayal of who they really were. It was Adam and Eve themselves. That is still how it is for us, isn't it? In a sense, Eden went with them when they left the garden because Eden was creation but they couldn't see it that way. And God went with them as well, was with them as He/She was in Eden.

So actually
"home" is who we really are, not a where, not a place we occupy, or ever can this side of eternity. So just like Adam and Eve and every generation since, our critical challenge is to squint as often as possible until we gradually see ourselves more fully, more truly. And that is also our most vexing problem. For most of us, in spite of using all our psychological, sociological, cultural lenses and making all our claims of being aware, insightful, honest about ourselves, we leave something out because we want to be sophisticated and smart in each others eyes. What we leave out is any sense of God, any admission of a longing too amorphous to be completely reasonable and definable. What we leave out is something primal about ourselves.

So I repeat what I've repeated through this whole chapter: we need to squint more often, much more often in following hints to being home in and with ourselves. And that would make a difference worth finding out about. It would throw some penetrating light on what it might mean to "love our neighbor as ourselves" as well as to "love our enemies." Go figure try to figure out and live out what that might mean, my friends.

Here now is my truly last, beautifully simple, profound insight about squinting to see ourselves as "home." It comes from Marilynne Robinson in her incredible novel, Gilead. Toward the end of the story she has the old pastor write these words in his journal: "There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world's mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. 'He will wipe the tears from all faces.' It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

"Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that also allows us to be brave --- that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and that to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing." (3)

To which I presume to add that longing is surely a form of prevenient grace and prevenient courage.

You may have labored to get to the end of this chapter which may be too dense, long and contorted to easily follow. You may also have sensed that I labored to write it as well. Let's hang in together with our longing anyway. And I hope and pray that these words of this old man I am will help you be in touch with your longing, squint to see and be your real self, and allow you to be useful and generous along with me.

(1) Robert Frost: "The Gift Outright" pg. 424, The Poetry of Robert Frost Holt Rinehart Winston 1962
(2) Emily Dickinson: Poem "1129" pg. 506, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson Little Brown 1960
(3) Marilynne Robinson: Gilead pg. 245-46, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2004


  1. At the risk of losing something in the translation to a different vernacular, it seems to me that something of what you are getting at in this chapter is touched upon by Plato when he has Socrates embody knowledge of ignorance. Of course, Socrates famously recognized his own finitude, his "wisdom" was that he, unlike others, knew he did not know.

    Interestingly, however, the only thing Socrates claims any positive knowledge of is things erotic (he claims this in the Symposium). Now don't let yourself be distracted by the term - a bit of squinting should help here.

    It does not refer primarily to sexual attraction - although sexual attraction is rooted in this more originary understanding of the erotic. Rather, the erotic refers more fundamentally to precisely the sort of longing to which you point in this post. Whenever we seek that which lies beyond us ... knowledge, truth, justice, one another, the beautiful ... the divine ... eros is at work. The important thing about eros, though, is that it awakens us to our own limitations; it forces us to recognize our finitude even as it invites us, perhaps even compels us, to stretch out beyond ourselves in ways that open new possibilities of relation.

    I think that is why Socrates claims to know something of eros and why, too, this was not in tension with his claim to know only that he did not know. His life was animated by the attempt to "know thyself," and this in precisely the sense of self-knowledge you discuss in the post; for the original meaning of the oracular saying - Know Thyself - was indeed the admonition to recognize your place as human and know that you are not (a) god.

  2. Please keep writing - I just discovered your work. I don't know how I've missed it up to now, and I am grateful for your gentle challenging and strong encouragment. Arnette in Iowa

  3. Please keep writing, Ted! I can only speak for myself when I say that I'm enjoying it thoroughly. I'm just too intimidated to ask a question. I'll try, though. I promise. :-)

  4. Ted, I think that (many) women may need to squint a bit differently than (most) men. We all internalize the way others see us, of course, whether or not there be any dazzling truth to those things. But I think a woman may tend to internalize more from her intimate relationships, and how those folks see her, and men perhaps more from the broader world's ideas and/or the dominant culture. Thank you for exploring our longing for home. (rev j powers)

  5. So I have been using an Advent Reflection book that I decided this morning I really do hate. Two weeks is enough test time. Each reflection is the same, the same, the same. I decided this morning (Gaudete Sunday) to switch. Went to my bookcase and picked up "Tracks in the Snow." It's an old friend I have used in the past that has meat! Thank you for the gift from 1985. "Tracks in the Snow" will be my companion for the rest of Advent and beyond.