Marshall McLuhan — the great assessor of the impact of mass media on our lives — wrote an essay in 1963 called “The Agenbite of Outwit.”
He said that, when humankind implemented the telegraph in 1844, it radically altered the state of human consciousness because it had projected its central nervous system out onto the world. Every conscious neuron was thence connected by immediate-information-giving utilities to every other.
McLuhan was aware that human inventions involved extensions of the body into space: the wheel an extension of the foot; the hoe, the arm; clothing, the skin; and the book an extension of the eye.
But with humankind’s global connection through its nerves, the axis of reality shifted radically; it created benefits of course but it also created a new set of obligations because no neuron could deny the presence of every other.
The late great contemporary composer John Cage took a liking to these ideas. It was not that they flipped reality on end but more that they presented opportunities for living more sanely. They redefined the concept of sharing so that it now includes sharing not only the benefits but also the burdens of others — fully supportive of the axiom: People are happier when dog no longer eat dog.
In his classic, “A Year From Monday,” Cage says (and I paraphrase, you can see the original on Page ix): it is now incumbent upon humankind to implement globally the disciplines people traditionally practiced to be at peace, at one with themselves — meditation, yoga, psychoanalysis, and every related modality.
When such disciplines are practiced globally people recognize that others are not threatening and greedy by nature. They are better able to see the needs of others (people are more inclined to speak of them) and moved to take steps to meet those needs without resentment or derision. Such is how an effectively working planet-wide central nervous system operates.
For a long time, Cage was interested in producing a list of utilities that connect us to each other (e.g., the telephone, radio, Internet) whereby we come face to face with every language, custom, and ritual situated along the spectrum of humanity.
In “Agenbite,” McLuhan said that, since the world contracted to the size of a tribe or village where everyone knows what’s going on everywhere, the human community feels compelled to participate. Participation is the democratization of happiness.
Understandably McLuhan has long been thought of as one of the inventors of “global village” but a village free of zenophobia. Zenophobes fear diversity, it contradicts assumptions about self and other that thrive on a divide-and-conquer ethic.
Anyone interested in anthropology knows that people living in pristine tribal cultures — there are a million studies on it — find it impossible to think of themselves as an “individual” or “independent” operator.
Of course “primitives” recognize differences — some folks are faster, smarter, stronger, and more efficient in amassing prized money-shells — but the faster do not tax the slower to enhance their prestige. A consciousness wired to every other induces genuine humility and compassion.
For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church tried to promote global connectedness through the concept of a “mystical body” asserting that through Jesus all Christians share a mystical, spiritual bond that cannot be broken.
And Alexander the Great proposed a similar idea in his “homonoia,” a universal union of hearts, a “brotherhood of man” but, in his brotherhood, brother does not share the burden of brother.
Though we continue to reap the benefits of a fully-operative global nervous system, the human community still has not faced up to the task of putting flesh and bone on those nerves, that is, of creating a political economy designed to meet the needs of all, one that fits the complex of nerves.
And needs-based means providing not only full health care for everyone, from the day we’re born to the day we die, but also housing, daily sustenance, old age care, the works — the opposite of a deserts-based, dog-eat-dog, tribal mind.
Thus the potential for achieved well being is no longer limited to Christians or Macedonians or any other sect but extends to every physical, neurological, consciousness in our global home.
Disbelievers in this connectedness are at least willing to acknowledge that what happens in China (and Mexico, Vietnam, and Japan) affects the quality of our lives in the United States. They acknowledge globalization but only in so far as it relates to money, trade, power, and deserts-based benefits.
Otherwise their battle cry is for walling off the self and nation from what exists on the other side of the synapse and for siphoning off “differences” among populations into “ghettos.”
This is nervous-breakdown thinking and explains why at any moment some group somewhere can rise up and terrorize the world, claiming their dreams were shattered through demonizing, exclusionary, needs-denying practices.
Quite astoundingly, two of the 2016 presidential candidates in the United States are calling for revolution: one for “political revolution,” the other for a guilt-free battering-of-the-weak-without-reprisal revolution based in an ideology that stigmatizes difference.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard predicted this would occur when his “The Concept of Dread” appeared the same year the telegraph was born. He was addressing the dread of connectedness, the dread of facing up to a needs-based political economy that being linked neurologically requires.
Pope Francis recently said that people who wall themselves off from others, who classify and divide, are destroyers of the mystical body and cannot call themselves Christians. They tear away at the limbs of a universal needs-meeting body.
Which brings us to the true function of the computer. People might use the machine to Google cheap flights to Spain or find a good house at the shore but the computer exists primarily: (1) to inventory the needs of every neuron in the cosmic system; (2) to inventory every available worldwide resource (every kind everywhere); and (3) to find the best way of getting what’s needed to those in need without charge or delay.
We do know of course that in every Eden people steal, cheat, rob, and raid your cache — sin is a given — but in the meantime, in this era of our neurologically-connected needs-based revolution, every person on the planet is treated like the richest person on earth.
Now that’s a revolution of dread.
Circa 1935: Dennis Sullivan’s family visited Coney Island and had this portrait taken. His mother is the woman in white, third from the right in the second row, and her mother is in white all the way to the right. Four of the author’s aunts and one uncle are in the photo as well as lifelong family friends.
The presidential candidates are out on the trail again and the topic of “family values” is back on the agenda, if only slightly. I like that. I like talk about the family.
When I’m in conversation with folks at a coffeehouse or casual-dinner setting and the topic of family comes up, I invariably ask the person who’s sallying forth about it: What does your family stand for? And invariably I get: What in the world does that mean?
And I say, well: Do you come from a creative family or maybe a family that likes to laugh and, when it does, the pain of life is relieved somewhat? Does your sense of humor provide perspective when times get rough?
“What does your family stand for?” is a kind of Rorschach test. Someone connects with one of the inkblots and says: Oh, look, that’s me, there’s my family, we’re into power; we love money; we thrive on prestige, privilege, and things elite. Our Sermon on the Mount is: Do unto others before they do unto you and then cut out.
There are people who say their family has believed (and practiced) for generations giving an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. They say they’re “into” justice, standing up for policies that meet the needs of everyone.
Asked to give an example they say: Well, every person on Earth has a right to full health care from the day they’re born till the day they die, no exceptions. And when you ask why they say: Because Health and Healing are inalienable rights.
I’ve talked to people who come from laissez-faire families who care about nothing and it makes no difference; they say they want to keep stress down.
With respect to “What does your family stand for?” it should be pointed out that this is not a niche or boutique question designed for a certain few. It pertains to everyone, and anyone interested in bettering personal development and mental health must answer it, and do so through serious self-reflection. Become an Ancestry.com for the genealogy of morals.
Secondly, the question in question is not academic because the family — and that includes everybody who has a say in it — wills you something. And you’re willed not just proteinic DNA but social DNA as well. In some cases, it means the row assigned you is easier to hoe; in others, it entails seeing a therapist for 30 years to peel off layers of familial gunk.
Thus, answering “What do I stand for?” has to do with finding out what you were “willed” and how your legacy affects your standing in the world. It’s a sad game because it involves our forebears saying: Here’s a little keepsake, I hope it works out for you — we are never consulted.
Some people get left holding the bag. They’re willed racism, hating black people and Jews and demeaning women, Muslims, and people whose sexual being requires complex solutions for well being.
If a family’s traits are based in aggression — perhaps from a fear of scarcity — those traits can erupt when the family comes together. Every year, hordes of articles are written during the winter holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, et al.) advising people how to emerge from family encounters with their hide in tact.
The great Irish lyrical poet, Michael Hartnett (1941-1999) has a poem called “That Actor Kiss,” which speaks to his relationship with his father especially during the father’s last days.
His father is in a hospital or nursing home and Michael, as he’s looking at his father in bed, leans over and kisses him; later over a drink he realizes that was the last kiss he ever gave the man, and also the first.
He says the shame is that that “kiss fell down a shaft too deep/to send back echoes that I would have prized.” And what did the father leave him?
(he willed to me his bitterness and thirst,
his cold ability to close a door).
Hartnett says he was given an acerbic tongue based in loss, a fondness for the drink, and a revenge that gets even with people by shunning them.
I teach, maybe “facilitate” is a better word, a course at the Voorheesville Public Library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity.” People in the group write stories about what they were willed, where it’s gotten them, and how they feel about the deal. It’s self-analysis and writing your own obituary rolled into one.
One inventive member of the group, Jim Corsaro, says in a story “Family Closets” that his garrulous Italian-American family in Niagara Falls were forever gabbing, talking about everything under the sun.
But he said he never heard a word about his brother being gay, which everyone had to acknowledge when he died of AIDS in a far-off land. Jim said he got the job of telling his mother about the death and the way his brother died. Much to his surprise his mother said she always thought her son was gay.
But what kept the family from acknowledging a sexuality that was different from theirs (presumably) and required a dose of empathy?
In conjunction with the publication of his memoir, “But Enough About Me,” the actor and movie star Burt Reynolds said growing up he always said his father was his hero but when Burt came to be an actor the father kept saying acting was for sissies. Plus he would not acknowledge his son was a going concern and, no matter how big Burt got, he refused to see him as a “man.”
As in the case of the Corsaros, Burt’s father could not stretch to meet the unique needs of a kin. Their scales of justice were skewed, unbalanced, exclusionary, discriminatory, callous — and toward a son, a brother, someone they once loved as a child.
Someone told me recently that if he starting talking about “What does my family stand for?” he’d wind up writing a book. And I said: Well, what’s holding you back?
In the Fall of 1957, the ABC television network aired a new game show, “Who Do You Trust?” It was a follow-up to a show that ran the year before, “Do You Trust Your Wife?”
In the new format the host, a young Johnny Carson, gave a contestant a category of questions and told him he was going to ask a question from it. The man had to decide whether he would respond or wanted to call his wife (waiting off stage) because he trusted her to know that part of life better.
The show could have easily been called: “How Well Do You Know the One You Love?”
Such shows spark viewer prurience because, as the contestant is deciding what to do, the viewer is wondering what he would do in the situation, that is, how well does he know his own wife?
A postmodern version of the show — in societies where people often arm themselves with automatic weapons and head to a movie theatre or holiday party to blow people to smithereens — might be called “How Well Do You Know Your Neighbor?”
Unlike the prototype “Who Do You Trust?” where winners walk away with a few dollars, the neighbor show is high-stakes stuff involving light-flashing ambulances and emergency rooms filled with bloody limbs.
Of course what comes to mind is the mass killing that took place in San Bernardino, California earlier this month when 28-year-old Syed Rizwan Farook and his 29-year-old Pakistani wife, Tashfeen Makik, went to Farook’s place of employment and “took out” 14 and sent more than 20 in emergency vehicles to the hospital to have their discombobulated bodies made whole again.
In terms of a game show, what the families knew about those folks is enigmatic at best. Nobody saw they had lost their minds to the belief that violence is an efficacious problem-solver — called “radicalization.”
If the relatives were on the game show “Do You Know Your Neighbor?” or “Do You Know the Ones You Love?” they’d have walked away with nothing while the community had been assigned the task of picking up mops and pails to wash away the stains of blood.
Farook’s brother-in-law, stunned by the event, said he was “baffled.” He said Farook was a “good religious man,” “just normal,” “not radical”; he and his wife were a “happy couple.”
When Farook’s sister, Saira Khan, was asked whether she noticed anything, her eyes glazed over, so soaked in disbelief was she. She said the couple was married, they had a child!
Feeling guilt over what occurred, she told CBS interviewer David Begnaud, “So many things I asked myself. I ask myself if I had called him that morning or the night before, asked him how he was doing, what he was up to. If I had an inclination, maybe I could have stopped it.”
“Inclination” is the operative word, which means “I knew nothing.” In response to her statements the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump publically called her a “total liar.”
But the collective’s pool of predictive measures told us nothing either:
— 1. Neither person had a criminal record;
— 2. Neither was on a government terrorist watch list; and
— 3. The government had no concrete evidence (inkling) that something was going on.
Of course in retrospect, when 150 million FBI agents are put on the case, a few critical facts will turn up, such as those folks were engaged in big-time subterfuge (advocating violence as a problem-solver) for quite some time.
Though government officials are not allowed to take part in our game shows, we have to admit the FBI would score high on a show called “We Know a Lot About Your Neighbor — Retrospectively!”
We have to laugh at the “profilers” (sadly) who people the television screen after such bloody events, boldly stating that we need to be on the lookout for this or that. But, if their prediction tables are so good, we’d see scores of suspects being arrested while you’re reading this.
A headline in the Jan. 16, 2015 edition of “The Atlantic” reads: “To Reduce Gun Violence, Know Thy Neighbor” with the tantalizing subtitle, “How a sense of community can help stop a bullet.” The premise, of course, is a truism: If you know the people around you, you have a better chance of knowing what’s going on around you.
The author of the article, Andrew Giambrone, points to a recent study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program on “neighboring” where the researchers found that a majority of their interviewees said they knew little about what went on in their neighborhood.
Scads of books and articles have been written on the loss of “social cohesion” and “social capital” — “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” jumps to mind first — the glue that holds the species together, the collective wherewithal we bank on to move us into the future with minimal blood and violence.
With all the talk these days about building walls — physical and psychological — around racial, ethnic, and religious groups we want to keep at nation-boundary length, is it not feasible that members of some communities, worried about whether newcomers into their neighborhood are latently violent, will pay real estate agents to administer a battery of psychological tests to screen out the potentially violent?
If we’re ignorant about the current people we walk among, perhaps we can classify potential neighbors into the “good,” the “bad,” and the “ugly.” A kind of psychological redlining in the interest of building walls around our worries.
In a few hours, the New Year will be upon us. In some quarters, the champagne will flow like mad as revelers waltz across the ballroom floor subconsciously wondering how different things will be in 2016.
Me? I’m going to do two things. First I’m going to sing the traditional anthem, “Auld Lang Syne”:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And, while I sing this sad reflective song, I’ll raise a cup of kindness and give thanks for the collective good will and tenderness that have brought us this far. Then I’ll sing a wassail song under the guise of the famed Mister Rogers.
In the cider-producing parts of western England this time of year, neighbors sing and brandish toasts to awaken their apple trees to scare away the evil spirits that threaten loss in the harvest to come. Mister Rogers wassailed every day his program aired in hopes of bringing forth a crop of worthy neighbors.
Perhaps you’d like to sing along with me:
It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
It's a neighborly day in this beautywood,
A neighborly day for a beauty,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let's make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we're together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?
Won't you please,
Won't you please,
Please won't you be my neighbor?
Eso es todo, no hay más. ¡Feliz año nuevo!
When I was 12 and an altar boy at St. Mary’s of the Assumption Church, on my way to serve midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, I looked intently at the winter sky in search of the Star of Bethlehem.
I learned about the Star in catechism class and grew to believe that it returned every year and that, finding it in the darkness of night I, like the Magi of the first Christmas, would find the heralded child born in a manger.
The Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” which my family sang and was played incessantly on the radio, said so:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide me to thy perfect light.
“Still proceeding.” It meant the star came every year for every believer to see.
Within 10 years, in college courses on the Greek Scriptures (the New Testament), I was introduced to concepts such as “form criticism,” “redaction criticism,” and Midrash.
These methods exhorted that, in reading Biblical texts, it was critical to define the literary form and historical context of biblical passages in order to understand how the redactor (editor) shaped the narrative to express certain theological truths and reveal the purpose of his writing.
In the case of the narrative of Jesus’s birth, I found out there were two stories, one by Matthew the other by Luke, and that they did not put forth the same facts, in fact contradicted each other. I was disedified: How could there be a discrepancy in the Bible?
I was told the stories were parables — as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan explain in “The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth” — stories that might not be factual but nevertheless contain deep truths. A Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am” approach would not get at the truth.
In examining the Christmas stories critically, I had to conclude there was no manger, there were no swaddling clothes, there was no “star of night” to lead me to the “house” or “stable” — the two gospels differ on the location of the event — so I stopped looking for the Star of Bethlehem.
But there was a subversive quality to the new thinking in that, when the seeker of truth hears the angels (metaphoric) sing “peace on earth,” that person feels called to become a person of peace, which might include taking a stand against corporate, military, and religious institutions that initiate, thrive on, and profit from war.
In singing carols such as “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” the person of conviction receives the truths contained in the Scriptural narrative and elects to chase away the darkness without fear, indeed becomes the announcing angel singing, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
The great joy is that another soul has chosen to live a different kind of life, to create a different kind of world, one in which poverty and injustice are confronted and steps taken to eliminate them.
A while back, it struck me that that was what Dickens was talking about in “A Christmas Carol” — my favorite (and only) childhood book — when the Ghost of Christmas Present forces Scrooge to look upon two emaciated children, a boy called “Ignorance” and a girl called “Want.”
The spirit warns Scrooge, “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.”
But ill-sighted Scrooge could not accept personal responsibility for erasing the conditions that gave these children currency, exclaiming in write-off fashion: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
As the night progresses, as lovers of the story know, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come projects for Scrooge personal destruction that will occur — the death of Tiny Tim — without his involvement in the lives of others. Scrooge of course undergoes a transformation and becomes Tim’s “second father.”
The 19th-Century novelist Margaret Oliphant described this book of metamorphosis as “a new gospel.” claiming that it did in fact make people better.
“A Christmas Carol” came out in 1843 and reflected Dickens’s real-life experiences with the poor and downtrodden. The book’s plot was conceived during the author’s three-day stay in Manchester, England witnessing the poverty and human degradation inflicted on the “dregs” of the citizenry.
I do think it more than coincidental that during 1843 the first worldwide commercial Christmas card was produced. Inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned artist John Callcot Horsley of the Royal Academy in London to design a card that people could send to family and friends to wish them Merry Christmas while reminding them of what the December birthday stood for.
In its own right, the card is a kind of gospel, a parable that tells a story far more complex than the cards bought, signed, and sent today.
In the Horsley original, a family has gathered together to offer a toast to the person looking at the card. The gathered friends are facing the recipient with their glasses held high looking not sad but not exuding merriment.
On the card, to the right of the family is depicted a woman with a child being clothed by a compassionate older woman standing above them, and on the left is a man serving food to an old person and a child dressed as commoners.
Let those who make distinctions between the sacred and profane play games that split the world in two. When I saw the card, I exclaimed: Look! It’s the Star of Bethlehem!
The star shines in the family greeting its loved ones with a cup of caring wine and in the reminders offered, left and right, about how to defeat Ignorance and Want.
It is a continuation of the parable of love found in the Greek Scriptures as well as in the parable of transformation found in “A Christmas Carol” where angels and spirits respectively sing strains of peace and good will.
And such transformation is not the property of a particular sect of believers; it belongs to every soul who faces the dark night of winter. It might not contain a manger or swaddling clothes or shepherds watching their flocks beneath an open sky but it does reflect a world where the pain of those in need has been taken into account and eased, if only slightly, by human beings committed to angelic peace.
Under such circumstances, the darkness of death hasn’t a leg to stand on because it’s a death-defying birthday, a birthday that belongs to every soul far and wide who looks up in the midnight sky in search of the Star of Bethlehem.
The first chapter of Graeme Green’s “The Power and the Glory,” published in 1940, tells of a certain Mr. Tench who as a boy felt impelled to become a dentist like his father after finding in a wastebasket a discarded cast of a patient’s mouth.
The family tried to dissuade the boy from his fascination with the “toy” by offering an Erector Set in trade but the boy refused. It was too late, Greene says, “fate had struck,” and then with what is often quoted with regard to having a calling in life he adds: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
The door of course is the door to the unconscious. When it opens, the initiate — of any age, and it opens more than once — receives a vision, hears a voice, telling him what path to take in life, how to situate himself in the world. And the recipient has no choice but to obey unless he wishes to be haunted by guilt and regret for becoming a self he was not meant to be.
The haunting persists, the Swiss writer Alain de Botton says in “The Real Meaning of Your ‘True Calling’” (“O, The Oprah Magazine,” November 2009), because one’s calling is connected to such primal questions as “Who am I?” and “What am I meant to be?” Elsewhere he says, pessimistically it seems, the best a person can hope for is to see his talents and aptitudes find a receptive home in the world.
Of course there is grave difficulty in talking about “calling” or “vocation” today because formal religion coopted its usage centuries ago, claiming there is only one authentic voice and that is God’s, all others, as some claim, are the work of the Devil. Thus to have a calling has come to mean becoming a minister, a nun, a priest, or a similar church functionary.
It’s not that calling in life is not a religious concept; it is, but the larger community has been stripped of its stake in it. And yet just a few weeks before his death, on Aug. 30, 2015, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks spoke in The New York Times of his calling.
Involved with patients subject to the weirdest neurological disorders imaginable, Sacks said he felt “a mission to tell their stories . . . I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly” (with no help from others).
Speaking of calling this way, we see it means having a destiny the outline of which comes in the vision or dream when the door opens — and may direct the person to do something monumental as relieving the suffering of others.
Getting hooked up with one’s dream was part of every American Indian’s life growing up. The community did not wait for a door to open; they shook it open. They brought the aspirant to a remote place where, through fasting and ingesting concoctions to disorient the mind, he waited for a dream to come and project his destiny. And the Indians made clear that this was not the work of a spiked imagination.
When the Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, who lived among and near the Delawares (Lenni Lenape) for more than 30 years, saw an Indian engage in deeds of extraordinary courage, he inquired of the person how he knew he would be able to handle such things. The response was that the “tutelary (guardian) spirit” that he had received in a dream was his source of strength, his guarantor of safety.
In his “An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, who once inhabited Pennsylvania and the neighboring States,” published in 1819 — every line of which is worthy of attention — Heckewelder says initiates “were put under an alternate course of physic and fasting, either taking no food whatever, or swallowing the most powerful and nauseous medicines, and occasionally he is made to drink decoctions of an intoxicating nature, until his mind becomes sufficiently bewildered, so that he sees or fancies that he sees visions, and has extraordinary dreams, for which, of course he has been prepared beforehand.”
George Henry Loskiel, another Moravian clergyman who lived among the Indians in Pennsylvania, says in his equally-classical “History of the United Brethren among the Indians in North America,” printed in 1794, that the young man who has not received his calling becomes “dispirited and considers himself forsaken by God, till he has received a tutelary spirit in a dream; but those who have been thus favored, are full of courage, and proud of their powerful ally.” And God here means unbounded authentic inspiration.
In 2006, I delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Los Angeles, “To Have a Calling in Life: A Human Antidote to Growing up Absurd And, For Those Involved in the Criminology-Related Disciplines, A Sure Method of Delinquency Prevention.”
I told the gathered that I saw more than a few parents tell their kids to be their unique selves, to find their unique place in life, to do what they feel called to do but their tone said: Be a success which, when questioned about its meaning responded: Court fame, get into power, do unto others before they do unto you, be successful for yourself, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. You have to decode the texts in these messages but the meanings are there and are almost always dressed in the same nuance.
In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell — “Animal Farm” and “1984” do not scratch the surface — says that, if a person had a choice, “One would never undertake such a thing [in his case being a writer] if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
As Greene said: Fate strikes and it’s case closed.
In 1902, the German poet Maria Rainer Rilke received a now highly renowned letter from a 19-year-old soldier, Franz Xavier Kappus, along with a bevy of poems, asking the poet to look at them and tell him if he had something going on.
Not so matter-of-factly Rilke says the poems lack a “style of their own.” He avers, “You are looking outside yourself, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — no one.” Except maybe a tutelary spirit who comes bearing a destiny dressed in a dream?
In his search for the essence of life, his continued calling, the great Spanish mystic Juan de la Cruz spoke of calling as involving a dark night of the soul but one in which all questions are answered. “On that glad night/in secret, for no one saw me,/nor did I look at anything/’ he says, “with no other light or guide/than the one that burned in my heart./This guided me/more surely than the light of noon . . .”
Years ago, I saw glimpses of a calling during discussions of soccer scores and Mel Brooks at dinner and more so during the boy’s periodic redition regarding his station in life. I listened because I knew such things are a matter of life and death.