Unencumbering

(And I’m finally getting around to finishing this just as the local cucumber season begins? Coincidence? ;-))

Caroline Fairless — someone I think of as a friend and hope to know better — posted an essay in April on her blog (Restoring the Waters) titled Eco-Spirituality ~ Thinking Like an Ecosystem, drawing from Frances Moore Lappe’s article “How to Think Like an Ecosystem.”

In her post, Caroline notes that for her, “the ‘release of our sense of human primacy” and with it “the healing of the earth, the waters, the air, and all creatures including humans; the healing of our broken economies (or the need to re-imagine our economies), our broken politics, our broken relationships” — “has always carried with it a sense of sacrifice.”

She adds that recently a new word — unencumber, which she feels to be a “word of freedom, of weightlessness, of possibility and joy” — has perhaps enlarged her sense of what is, or of what’s possible: “But what if we understood release, or letting go, the practice of becoming unencumbered? What joy might lie beyond – on the other side of – our encumbered lives. … Is it possible, or might it be possible, that we can design eco-ritual to celebrate the gift of letting go? Not only the sacrifice of our sense of human privilege and entitlement, but the utter joy and freedom that comes from un-encumbering ourselves of our misconception that humans are the ultimate species?”

(An aside: I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern right now, which the story of how Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things (c. 50 BC), extolling the even-more-ancient Epicurus’s ideas of the world — atoms as building blocks of all things, religion as cruelty and superstition, the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good in life, etc. — was rediscovered after centuries of being ‘disappeared’.

One of the points Lucretius makes is that the universe was not made for or about humans, and that humans are not unique but made from the same stuff as all material things (atoms); as Greenblatt summarises: “Humans do not occupy the privileged place in existence they imagine for themselves: though they often fail to recognize the fact, they share many of their most cherished qualities with other animals.”

In this, as in his beliefs that the soul is material and therefore not immortal, and that the universe is not created or designed but was caused by the result of random collisions of atoms, he feels there is no reason to despair but instead to feel deep wonder: “The realization that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else, that the world was not made for us by a providential creator, that we are not the center of the universe … — all these things are not cause for despair. On the contrary, grasping the way things really are is the crucial step toward the possibility of happiness. Human insignificance — the fact that it is not all about us and our fate — is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.” This last sentence in particular seems similar to what Caroline expresses in her post, at least as a possibility.)

Back to the ideas of “sacrifice” and “unencumbering”: “Sacrifice” has always rubbed me the wrong way, long before my intersection with Girardian ideas about the word and its centrality in human civilisation. Likewise “self-sacrifice,” though some Girardians have reclaimed it as laudable. And self-sacrifice is what Caroline is talking about here, sublimating our presumed desire to be top dog (pun intended) to allow that other beings are equally entitled. I admit that I lean to the cynical when looking at human motivation, my own and everyone else’s; I struggle to see self-sacrifice as self-less.

I am reminded of Tony Campolo’s comment that “You have two choices in any relationship: you can respond in power or in love.” I interpret “relationship” to include our relationship with the earth, the rest of the natural world, other beings whether human or not. Where is self-sacrifice on the power<–>love spectrum? It could be a response to fear and anxiety, a need to control, and in essence a power move, or it could be a response borne of felt gratitude and of a creative urge to community and trust. What presents as self-sacrifice could be a response of power, or a response of love (or to love), and I’m not convinced that either observers or actor can distinguish which, given the bias of most people for wanting to be (seen as) good, given our enthrallment to heroism.

I wrote in 2005 (Relaxing Into Love) that self-sacrificing — and I was thinking then of “doing good” for other people at some cost to oneself — sometimes seems to retain a kind of power over, in an undefined, latent, often completely unacknowledged way; perhaps doing good to or for others is the best exercise of power over, but it still seems to place the one giving the help in a position over the one receiving the help. The helper is still, paradoxically, somehow privileged, it seems to me, even and maybe especially when giving up something to benefit another. The giver is rewarded for giving, if only by becoming a hero in others’ eyes (and therefore in their own eyes).

Sometimes, I wrote then, it seems to me that doing good, even at some cost to ourselves, is a comforting and acceptable substitute for really relinquishing our power: the power of wealth, of education, of status, of class, of race, of our sense of ourselves as good people, or as Caroline speaks of it in her blog posting, our view of ourselves (humans) as the most important organisms that live. What feels self-sacrificial could be a substitute or surrogate for really seeing the other as equally vital and worthy, someone with whom we have spiritual communion, someone we recognise as the being in the mirror. (I wrote a lot more in 2009 about self-sacrifice and my wariness of it, in Sacrifice, Self-Sacrifice and Oppression, Self-Oppression.)

Peter Rollins’ blog post today (Stop Teaching the Ethics of Jesus!) teases out so well the steps by which we move from wanting to do “good” (including being self-sacrificial) to our guilt and repression of our failings in this regard, to our actions, which we disavow and disown, that result from our inability to be true; and he suggests a simple way to create an environment where, as I wrote above, we might respond from “felt gratitude and … a creative urge to community and trust,” or, in other words, from a place of unencumbered joy :

The more we say that we should be moral and avoid immorality the more our desire for what we disavow grows. The louder the “no” the greater the temptation to transgress the “no.” The result is guilt, a guilt that is managed through repression, a repression that results in pushing our destructive actions into the unconscious to be manifested in our clandestine actions (i.e. in symptoms).

So what is the alternative to attempting to hold ethical principles? The answer is creating a space of grace in which we are invited to bring our darkness to the surface, to speak of it in an environment in which we will not be condemned or made to feel guilty, a community that will let us speak our anxieties and darkness without asking us to change. In short, a place where we can confront our humanity rather than running from it.

Again, back to “unencumbered” … In 2006, I was reading Sakyong Mipham’s Turning the Mind Into An Ally, where he writes that the “sense of self is mentally fabricated, defined by outer conditions” and talks about the “overriding need to maintain the comfort of ‘me'” and how much energy we expend to “draw in what will make us happy, fend off whatever causes pain, and pretty much ignore the rest.” He says, “True liberation is life without the illusion of ‘me’ — or ‘you’.”

That reminded me then, and now, of James Alison’s writing in The Joy of Being Wrong. For example, Alison says: “The process of faith in the life of the person is therefore precisely the learning to relax into the suggestion of this other “Other” [God], a process that is arduous because what is being undone is the way in which our selves are formed and constituted by the ‘worldly’ other.”

Back to Mipham, he writes that “we imagine our self as solid and unchanging. We stick up for it; we protect it. We feel angry when someone challenges the opinions we hold dear.”

I wrote then:

Alison sees a way for us to form a new “self” (which he puts in quotes), a self that is being called into being by God. For instance, when we remember that our self is held by this loving, friendly Other, we might do practical things like forgive and even feel friendly towards someone who is harrassing us (thereby imitating Jesus/God and not the usual human way of things), which is a momentary step out of the trap of culturally sanctioned mimetic desire and into participation with a pacific (vs. a violent) Other.

This idea seems not incompatible with Buddhist thought; by practicing meditation, the idea is that one may likewise “step out of the trap,” however briefly and infrequently, of habit, chatter, preconditioning, numbness, living our lives in the past (remembering, regretting, nostalgically wishing) and the future (worrying, hoping, rehearsing), sleep-walking — and in doing so, I might see my “self” and the selves of “others” clearly. To flip back to Alison again, perhaps it’s this clearer sight that constitutes in some way “being called into being by God.” I see both ideas resting in a sense of receiving and being grateful for what is, and in not grasping for what isn’t, including the identity of the self.

In other words, to the extent that we are not bound by the illusion of a solid self, mine or yours (the “other”), to the extent that we allow ourselves to be called into Another’s being, Another’s self, we can relax. In Lucretian terms, to the extent that we are aware of the mixing of “our” atoms (the ones that make us seem so solid) with all other atoms in the universe, we will feel the wonder and joy that comes from being part of the whole, unencumbered by the need to hold onto this thing I call “myself.”

To link this more overtly to Caroline’s post — which I want to make clear stirred a jumble of perhaps unlinked ideas in my head but which I’m not intending to comment on as a whole, or argue for or against:

Some might call it self-sacrifice to be called into being by another, by God, even by the sweet voice of universe, and to allow oneself to live in a place where one’s self is known as fluid, as illusory, as changeable, as completely intertwined with others’ selves. It’s a sacrifice, for one thing, of a strong sense of self, seen as so dear in our day and age. It’s also a sacrifice of autonomy and independence, because to be called is to do another’s bidding. Of course, we do this all the time, without realising it, when we copy what someone else is doing, or buy what they have, desire what they desire, and we see it then as being cool, and we think we are acting on our own desires. But really, for most of us most of the time, our being is called into being by those around us.

We might also see it as self-sacrificial to have good feelings toward someone who is acting like an enemy towards us. Though some might say that it shows a lack of self-esteem to respond to hostility with friendliness. I think it’s quite the opposite — opposite, that is, in the usual way of thinking of self-esteem as a view of oneself as worthy and likeable; though of course in another way it does show a lack of self-esteem, because “self” is not esteemed as preeminent or even existent — but I don’t find a lot of support for my view in the culture.

But mainly: Caroline’s idea of being unencumbered of certain assumptions as being felt as joy and freedom is resonant for me of Alison’s whole idea of “the joy of being wrong,” the joy and freedom of releasing misconceptions that trap, burden and bind us. This sort of release may seem like, and could be (mis)spoken of as, the sacrifice of ego, of one’s very self; but for me, the experience of just letting go of all in me that needs defending is, to use a phrase of Caroline’s, “life-serving.” It’s refreshing, relieving, relaxing.

In Blindsided By God: Reconciliation from the Underside, Alison talks about discovering “the delight of being undeceived, the amazing good fortune of finding oneself caught up in the flow of the real, the unmerited luck of finding oneself on the inside of a huge project whose final parameters are way out of sight.”

In the same essay, he says:

Here I think we are getting close to what is central: if reconciliation is a matter of morals, to achieve which I just have got to be damn heroic [self-sacrificial?], and which is going to be bloody painful, it doesn’t much matter if my heart is set on the outcome: the important thing is to be heroic. …

What I want to suggest is something different. … Jesus’ occupation of the place of shame, of loss, of death and of annihilation wasn’t, in the first place, to offer us an example of how to behave heroically. Rather it was the Creator-of-all-things’ way of opening up for us the possibility of entering into the full meaning, weight, and flow of Creation.

That is to say, and this is what is curious: that spaciousness owes its grandeur not to its being an extra cushion of resources so that we can carry out and achieve something heroic here. Rather it is luring and carrying us towards something much richer and more fun, which isn’t here yet, and in whose light the fights and definitions and approvals of here are only pieces of small-mindedness from which it is greatly to our advantage that we become unbound so as more richly to be able to enjoy what is coming upon us.

With this, the search for reconciliation becomes something enflamed by other fires. Something rather like a deep unconcern about myself is born, and a desire to be reconciled with the other because I know that both he and I will be much more, and will be able to enjoy ourselves much more if we are reconciled. …

…How extraordinarily lucky I am to have found myself caught up in this adventure, and because of that, of how lightweight, and almost frivolous it is….

(Frivolous in a way that Alison speaks of at the beginning of the essay, recounting the scene from Fantasia when the hippo is being pursued around columns by enemy crocodiles: “As she hurtles tragically between opposing enemies, our two-ton sylph suddenly breaks into a skip, turns to the camera and gives a little wink.”)

As I’ve written of previously, Alison speaks of “the life of faith” as our becoming  aware of the murdered, forgiving victim — the one we have destroyed in our quest to ensure order and security for ourselves — coming back to us; and because he comes back to us, forgiving, we therefore find ourselves behaving in different ways. He speaks of “being able to sit — relax, if you like — in the regard of someone who is coming towards us,” as central to faith. It’s a gratuitous reception of being liked, no matter what we’ve done, who we are, what we believe.

For Allison, our behaviour changes when we experience something and in that experience, discover something — and not because we believe something. It’s when we really experience being liked, being forgiven, receiving grace, that we naturally, as a natural effect, act differently than we did before, as a consequence of our experience.

This is respons-ibility, for me. Acting as a response to the experience of what I would call grace.

All of this, including parts of Caroline’s post and what she talks about in her book (The Space Between Church and Not-Church: A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of Our Planet), is excapsulated for me in something Peter Rollins writes, in “What is Pyro-Technology?”:

[T]the central event of Christianity is nothing less than a type of white-hot fire that burns up all we believe about ourselves, our gods and our universe. … The challenge is in forging an institution that, in its liturgical heart, fundamentally and resolutely undermines the beliefs and doctrines that it cherishes.

“The amazing good fortune of finding oneself caught up in the flow of the real” echoes Lucretius’s suggestion that (as Greenblatt writes) “understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder,” though for Lucretius that nature,  “the flow of the real,” is all atoms and void, with no creator or loving caller; even though I don’t share his vision fully, I do feel, deeply, the heady, visceral wonder of such a vision. I feel wonder even deeper to find myself “on the inside of a huge project whose final parameters are way out of sight,” as Alison puts it.

And what an unencumbering, woozy, hapless, hopeful and hopeless feeling “a deep unconcern about myself” brings. Truly, it doesn’t feel like sacrifice at all but opening, unburdening, joy, fun.

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One thought on “Unencumbering

  1. This is great. The link to Buddhism was fascinating. I especially appreciate your thoughts on self-sacrifice and our enthrallmnet to heroism, which puts us back at the center of the universe. It’s the trap of moralism. Connected to that – I wonder if the term self-sacrifice necessarily carries with it a sense of resentment. If so, then self-sacrifice binds us to the social other in violent ways – and is an obstacle to relaxing into being formed by the other Other.

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