"Adoration of the Shepherds" was painted in 1622 by Gerard van Honthorst.

For my Latin student of 52 years ago, Thomas Halley (1952-2017). Requiescas in pace, amice.

For many years, I was part of and later oversaw a poetry workshop group at our public library. The meetings were essentially criticism sessions where poets and poets-to-be came every other week to share their work.    

A poet would read a poem and the gathered writers — a dozen or so — would respond with kudos or offer suggestions about how the writer might better say what he wanted. For concinnity’s sake at the very least.

A participant might use the phrase “to reiterate again” and a fellow poet would suggest: delete “again” because “re-iterate” implies repetition. That’s a small example.  

But there were two or three individuals in the group who, whatever was said, accepted nothing; they got huffy, short, and sometimes fired back at the offerer with a sharpened word. Their minds were made up about “what was what” and brooked no interloper.

Because Christmas is on its way, the other night I was re-reading the birth narrative of Jesus in the Christian gospel of Luke and, halfway through, began to think of those walled-in poets. I thought that, if they had been there that first Christmas, nothing would have happened. No angelic communiqué would have gotten over their psychic wall.

As you might know, the birth narrative tells of a young woman visited by an angel who informs her of a plan for a child to be born who will shake up the world and, incidentally, did she want to be part of it?  

A lot of old-timers believe the angel gave Mary an order, a command she could not refuse. But that’s not so. The angel told her she had a choice and should think things over because accepting the offer would bring great upheaval in her life.

He said the woman who accepted the invitation would be expected to conceive, give birth to, and rear a revolutionary whom a lot of people would call Savior or Messiah.

The angel warned her that this might sound exotic but the mission would bring considerable pain and sorrow. But he added that, if she adopted the ways of her son, she could experience a joy equal to God’s.

Like the poets in our library, Mary had been offered a gift about how to proceed in the future but the correction would not involve a typo or two but rather a restructuring of the grammar of one’s being.

The choice: revolutionary movement or status quo?

Those who have read these scriptures know that Mary accepted, got pregnant, and, just as she was about to deliver, had to go with her husband to a far-off town to be counted in a census.     

When she and Joseph arrived, they could not find a place to stay so were forced to use a stable, where animals were living, as the room where Mary would have her child.

There in the dark of night the young mother gave birth. She wrapped her son in shreds of cloth — the old scriptural versions say “swaddling clothes” — and, after feeding him, laid him in a wooden trough called a manger.

One of the other gospel writers, Matthew, adds to the story. He says, right after the birth, an angel appeared to a group of shepherds in nearby fields. The angel “announced” to them a child had been born close by who was destined to change the world and, incidentally, did they want to be part of the plan?

As with Mary, the shepherds had to think things over. They did, and soon found themselves in a stable overlooking the newborn child. Something happened there because they left and began going about telling people about what they had seen.

No one knows if they mentioned the Messiah-Savior thing, I don’t think they knew. Such labels were textual add-ons by the gospel writers.    

The Christmas story then is: an offering made and a choice to follow. But, as with the poets in our library who refused to choose, a lot of people want to hear nothing about choice at Christmas.

They want chestnuts roasting on an open fire or Der Bingle crooning “White Christmas”: “May your days be merry and bright.”

What they don’t want to hear is “where ... children listen.” That means becoming like a child, opening up to what’s in front of the eyes. Children are economical; they want to get things right so they can go about and offer joy to everyone.

Such a lot to chew on: never mind for a gal not yet 20. One of the gospelists says that, while Mary “treasured” all these things, she needed time to digest them. After all she was the Mother of Christmas.

Charles Dickens picked up on this in “A Christmas Carol.” A money-mongering miser, Scrooge, had reached a point in his life where he was treating people like dogs, dismissing their cries for help with a walled-in condescension.

The situation had reached a point, Dickens says, where the powers-that-be thought Scrooge needed a tune-up. They sent ghoulish ghosts to sully his dreams, hoping the scare would straighten him out.

It was Scrooge’s dark night of the soul. When he woke in the morning, he was radiant as he had seen things as they are; he started shouting out the window to passers-by on the street: “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Everybody!” But he kept asking them what day it was, fearing he had missed his date with destiny.

It was not too late; it was Christmas, they said. Scrooge ran about buying gifts for everyone he knew to be in need, those whose needs he had dismissed as of no account. Everybody who’s read the story has Tiny Tim imbedded in their minds.

Tim was real for Dickens but he was also symbolic of every person everywhere whose needs are not being attended to.

Scrooge went to Tim’s home, the home of one of his employees, and eased the worries of the family. Scrooge kept saying the gift was to himself.   

I think today Scrooge would be shouting up and down to the streets that no human being deserves to worry about being sick because he hasn’t the means to purchase needed care. Scrooge would say every citizen of the United States should have the same health care coverage as every Senator from anywhere.  

And, with respect to help after hurricanes, Scrooge would demand that every citizen on the Island of Puerto Rico and every soul in the Virgin Islands be treated as one of us. To think otherwise is a crime.       

These are the kinds of things Mary needed to ponder if she decided to follow the ways of her son. Bringing peace and goodwill to everyone is a dark night of the soul.

What I like about Christmas is Christmas Eve, after everybody’s gone to bed, and the cold silence of winter enters my room, and it does every year. But there, once, sitting in the darkness I swear I heard an angel asking about my plans and whether they included bringing peace and goodwill to everyone.

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When the British neurologist Oliver Sacks’s 46-page “Gratitude” appeared in print in November 2015, Sacks had already been dead for three months.

The book contains four short essays he wrote for The New York Times during the last two years of his life, each a canticle of thanksgiving, honoring the people and things he was grateful for.

As an M.D., Sacks had dedicated himself to helping people afflicted by the weirdest neurological problems. In a 1985 essay, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” he told the story of a brilliant music teacher whose brain malfunctioned so that he could not identify certain shapes.

Upon leaving Sacks’s office, he reached for his hat only to discover he had taken hold of his wife’s head. The diagnosis was visual agnosia.

In the last two years of his life, when death was “no longer an abstract concept” but “an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence,” Sacks says in “Gratitude,” his feeling remained predominantly “one of gratitude.”

He said he was grateful for all the things “I had been given by others” but was also grateful because he was “able to give something back” through his work. He said how wonderful it was he had been blessed with a calling in life, a vocation, which helped him achieve “a sense of peace within.”

Sacks did not wait for national Thanksgiving Day in November to express his appreciation for what he had; his feelings arose on their own accord. Indeed, he seems to marvel at just how grateful he was.

It’s interesting to trace the pathways of Sacks’s life and how gratitude made its way into his feeling structure. Oddly enough, his essays come at a time when an extensive national literature on gratitude is appearing in major newspapers, magazines, and on national radio shows.

In almost every case what’s said emphasizes gratitude’s connection to happiness, which Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu texts claim exists. The late German sociologist Georg Simmel called gratitude “one of the most powerful binding agents of society,” “the moral memory of mankind.” A community-maker.

What’s most gratifying, if you will, is that a small group of university researchers have begun to look at the link between gratitude and happiness. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis has been interested in the social and biological benefits of gratitude.

He said his research shows that people disposed to gratefulness develop stronger immune systems, their blood pressure drops, they’re less bothered by aches and pains, they fare better at resisting stress, and they develop a deeper sense of self-worth. What more needs be said? It’s a wonder drug.

In 2003, Emmons published the results of a study he did with colleague Michael McCullough in an article “Counting blessings versus burdens.” The two said people who experience gratitude tend to view life-events as positive when those events can be just as easily viewed as negative. Gratitude people are able to maintain a mindset that cherishes the moment.

In a December 2015 New York Times piece, “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” Barbara Ehrenreich said one must be careful when talking about accepting negatives in relation to gratitude. She said feeling gratitude is not always an appropriate response to “blessings.”

“Suppose you were an $8-an-hour Walmart employee,” she asks, “who saw her base pay elevated this year, by company fiat, to $9 an hour. Should you be grateful to the Waltons who are the richest family in America? Or to Walmart’s chief executive, whose annual base pay is close to $1 million and whose home sits on nearly 100 acres of land in Bentonville, Ark?”

Ehrenreich answers her own question: “Grateful people have been habitually dismissed as ‘chumps,’ and in this hypothetical [Walmart] case, the term would seem to apply.”

She sees the relation between justice and gratitude. That is, can we expect someone to feel gratitude if he’s being taken to the cleaners but the offending party provides an Uber?

The Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has spent a good piece of his life trying to understand gratitude. His conclusion is: Gratefulness is critical for personal well-being because gratitude is the source of happiness in our lives.

Then he went a step further in a recent TED talk, stating it’s not enough to be grateful for what comes our way; we must live gratefully. It’s an active thing.

He says this happens when we agree that “every moment is a given moment ... a gift.” And each moment provides the opportunity for us to not only “enjoy it” but also “do something with it” and, when we avail ourselves of these opportunities, things tend to perk up.

But Steindl-Rast says that, because people rush “through life [they] are not stopping to see the opportunity,” which might involve doing something difficult like standing “up for [one’s] conviction.”

Therefore each person must stop and look and become aware of the opportunities, “to whatever life offers ... in the present moment.” When we do this, he says, we become revolutionaries of a whole other order.

This includes enjoying “the differences between people ... [being] respectful to everybody” because we are not driven to submit to condescension. With gratitude, we want to listen to each other and find the common ground that is the basis of happiness.

On Nov. 28, 1861, eight months after the Civil War began, Abraham Lincoln ordered all governmental departments to close for a day of Thanksgiving. He was asking America to stop and look and become aware of its common ground, and be thankful for who we are.

Then, after two years of a suicidal war, Lincoln — inspired by Sarah Josepha Hale — declared the last Thursday of every November a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise.” His proclamation begins, “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come … .”

He said they come from God but we know it’s each other.

Of course “turkey day” is a time for enjoying good food, good drink, and good conversation but it’s also a time for self-reflection to assess where “equal respect,” a condition of gratitude, fits into our lives.

Oliver Sacks, David Steindl-Rast, and Abraham Lincoln, each in his own way, would agree that that is what gratitude ultimately affords, an appreciation of the other as we appreciate ourselves.

Happy Thanksgiving.

In County Kerry Ireland and in Newfoundland and Labrador, All Hallows Eve is known as Snap Apple Night. Currier & Ives produced a print called “Snap Apple Night” modeled on Irish artist Daniel Maclise’s 1833 painting of the same name.

“Snap Apple Night,” an engraving by Daniel Maclise of Cork, Ireland, who was praised after his death by Charles Dickens for his “fertility of mind and wonderful wealth of intellect.” In parts of Ireland, All Hallows Eve is known as Snap Apple Night.

In many cultures throughout the ages, there are periods of time when the boundary line between this world and the “other” grows thin and those on the other crossover to visit us.

Often described as liminal, these times are linked to seasonal changes as in the fall when the darker half of the year (winter) is on its way or in spring when new light is coming back. The interplay of light and darkness upsets the way things are.

When the fall harvest season was ending and brought winter’s light, the ancient Irish celebrated the Gaelic festival of Samhain. They called it the time of the “new fire.”  

The late great 20th-Century anthropologist J. G. Frazer said, “In Ireland on the evening before Samhain a new fire was kindled which signaled the beginning of a new year. It was hoped the new fire would serve as a comforting light in the darkness to come.”   

Indeed inhabitants of many villages collected sticks charred by the new fire, hoping their presence at home would prevent house and family alike from being struck by lightening or shaken by some other catastrophe.

The festival of Samhain was celebrated on Nov. 1 and its vigil the night before was known as All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en, which means hallowed evening or holy evening; waiting for the visitors to arrive was a holy time.

Of course, we can see the connection between Halloween these days and the ancient festival especially after the Christian Church baptized the pagan rites and called them Allhallowtide. The triduum comprised All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows), and All Souls Day stretching from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

In his unsurpassable-classic “The Golden Bough” — the full 12 volumes not the single that college students were once familiar with — Frazer says Allhallowtide is the “time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinfolk.”

The early winter winds drove “the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside.” Some folks approached the visitation with fear because spirits of any ilk could come their way, but others saw the fading light as a time for hospitality, for welcoming their loved ones back among the living.

To provide sustenance for the alien souls, the residents of towns in southern Germany and Austria baked “soul cakes” or “souls” on All Souls Day (many of which they enjoyed while waiting).  

In Shropshire, England, even into the 20th Century, on All Saints’ Day members of the community went house to house “souling” — poor people in particular, singing “A soul-cake, a soul-cake,/ Have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul-cake.”

It was hoped that neighbors would provide a cake, some apples, maybe a bit of change and, for the accompanying adults, a sip or two of new ale. Charlotte Sophia Burne and Georgina F. Jackson in their classic “Shropshire Folk-lore” published in 1883 recorded instances of homes whose “liberal housewives …  would provide as many [soul-cakes] as a clothes-basket full.”

In the Tyrol, Frazer says, the folk also made “soul-lights.” These were lit and placed on the hearth on All Souls’ Eve so that “poor souls, escaped from the fires of Purgatory, may smear melted grease on their burns and so alleviate their pangs.”

Over time numerous permutations of the earliest Samhain rites developed in different countries, some varying even by locality. Toward the end of the 19th Century in Europe, “souling” was still alive with people going from house to house in search of cakes filled with soul. Souling then morphed into guising or mumming, when children disguised themselves in costume and offered songs, poetry, and jokes — instead of prayer — in hopes of receiving food or coin for their dramatics.

Folklorists say the Scots in masquerade visited neighboring homes carrying lanterns made from scooped-out turnips not only to light the darkened way but also to turn away potentially-threatening ghosts.

When immigrants came to North America, this aspect of the festival morphed into lit pumpkins and trick-or-treating but older folks will recall that families came together to eat and drink and watch the kids play fun-filled games like ducking for apples. In County Kerry and parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Halloween is still called “Snap-Apple Time.”

Those familiar gatherings have all but ceased. Halloween has been reduced to costumed kids trudging door to door expecting treats — or else. Long forgotten is Allhallotide to honor the memory of the dead. Journalist Lesley Bannatyne who has given considerable thought to the holiday, says, “The otherworldly elements of Halloween have moved into the realm of fantasy, satire, and entertainment.”

She’s right but does not mention that no one has to accede to such debasement. It’s possible to honor the souls we once knew by going out to visit them, and our efforts are not limited to formal hallowed eves.

Writers in a class at the Voorheesville Public Library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity” do not wait for liminal times when the past can meet the present. They thin the boundary themselves and enter the world of the other with enthusiasm.

That is, they honor the long-dead of their families with stories filled with love, humor, and truth. One soul has sung of a mother who lost direction — no one figured out why — so she and her family had to find ways to accept the ensuing senselessness.

Another writer told of his Italian-American family from Niagara Falls who never stopped talking when they came together, except in the case of a mother’s son who separated from the family only to die, years later, of AIDS. The writer was still having a hard time understanding why the family failed to wrap its collective arms around his brother.

Still, another writer spoke of a bell tower in her native town in Italy that through its hourly tolls reminded every resident to cherish the here and now.

All these writers dared to step across the boundary and speak to the departed with questions based in love and respect even when filled with pain.  

These memorists celebrate their own All Saints Day, their own All Souls Day, their own Halloween; they address the departed, especially those who cannot handle the truth, and in doing so render peace for all involved.

Happy Allhallowtide.

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Do you use irony in your conversations? It’s when you say the opposite of what you mean.

For example, on vacation you get to your room at the hotel and look out the window and there, 30 feet from your nose, is a solid brick wall. You say: Oh, look: Another great view of America!

To mask your disappointment — let’s call it that — you say the opposite of what you mean, the literary lexicons say for “humorous or emphatic effect.”  

Anyone hearing you knows you did not get what you wanted or hoped for. You were looking for a scenic view and got industrial brick.  

But I’m betting that understanding the nature and purpose of irony in your life is not on your bucket list as it’s not on the list of many others.

But that’s a poor approach to reality because the pervasiveness of irony in the cultural and social institutions of America today, especially through literature and television, is adversely affecting our efforts to forge a new national identity. We don’t know what people mean.

But I should point out that irony is a two-edged sword in that it can have a freeing function while other times, like now in the United States, it has morphed into a corroding sarcastic cynicism.

In a 1987 essay on the poet John Berryman, Lewis Hyde said, as a tool, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Subscribers are prisoners.

The great American writer of fiction and commanding revolutionary essays, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) — he took his life besieged by despair — called irony tyrannical and useless “when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” It lacks the power to transcend.

He points to postmodern literature’s love affair with irony but especially to television’s “cynical, irreverent, ironic, absurdist” depiction of social situations steeped in condescending mockery.

Wallace says at some point television swallowed irony whole (as well as its kin sarcasm and cynicism) and once it filtered into every channel it trained viewers “to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form.”

Is not the social commentary program of John Oliver (as was the case with his predecessor Jon Stewart) a savaging session?

When sharp-tongued comics Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce stepped into the arena in the 1950s, they opened the floodgates of a biting criticism that seemed perfect for the post-World War II generation. They skewered the McCarthy-reeking government and any other institution that held people down.

Over the decades, America’s institutions have taken it on the chin so often and in so many ways that an interloper like Donald Trump can come along and call The New York Times and The Washington Post purveyors of “fake news” and the FBI crooked and unreliable in serving the American people, thereby firing up a cadre of torch-bearing cynics.

That supreme generator of scorn is heralded as a savior for shielding the heapers of scorn from scorn. How can those who cherish the values of honesty and sincerity compete?

And the reason scorn, sarcasm, irony, cynicism, and the like remain “so powerful and so unsatisfying,” Wallace says, “is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’”

We have to ask ourselves whether it’s possible to get an ironist to say what he means even when someone “with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for,” Wallace notes, “ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig.”

The mouthing-off ironist, whether personal or corporate, sounds on the surface like a rebel but in truth is an oppressive tyrant because attention is drawn away from his needs and the needs of his neighbor, especially the less-well-off. The primary categories of reality are dismissed as fluff.

How would we ever know what anyone’s needs are when people say what they do not mean and what they mean they do not say?

A great part of the furor of the Trump supporter derives not so much from his supposed dissatisfaction with existing social institutions but from being trapped in a scorn-ridden identity that wears upon his being. He might think lashing out is a source of relief but it creates endless exhaustion for the rest of us.

And enough evidence exists that shows that those afflicted with irony-based despair soon begin to conjure up conspiratorial ghost stories laced with facts that do not exist.

Climate-change-deniers will never be convinced of a historical reality until they deal with the corrosive cynicism they suffer from based on needs not being met. And such cynicism is addictive because it provides a certain kind of neural pleasure; when you’re cutting a fellow citizen down, you feel alive.

What happens in the long run, though, is that the imagination is blunted. The tool that allows us to envision a way out of a morass such as irony, cynicism, and related deep-hole-diggers, loses its grounding.

But the imagination is critical because, as the educational philosopher Maxine Greene points out in “Releasing the Imagination,” it is our means “to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools.” Transcendence.

It may sound strange but we must start conversing about topics that cynics have long labeled utopian. Take full-coverage-lifetime-health-care as an example. The American cynic says it cannot work even though France and Canada and a host of other nations have provided such care for their citizens for decades. They shame us.

Impractical? Practical? These words pale in comparison to the corrosiveness of cynicism. With it comes to the practical; we have to remind ourselves of what Oscar Wilde said a century ago: “A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.”

Is it practical to suggest an annual income for every person in the United States of $100,000, students included because they work like the rest of us?

Is it practical to stipulate that anyone who makes over $1 million a year must hand over every dollar above the million-dollar mark to the national treasury? The Congressional Budget Office can figure out the details.

What about the provision of a comfortable abode for everyone? How might such a system work? And this would include home-repair and home-replacement for every U.S. resident done in by a storm, even U.S. citizens in the Virgin Islands.

We must include cynics in our discussions forward but must remind them that the agenda is about needs, the rightful needs of all. This means that cynicism must be checked at the door like they used to do with guns in the Old West.

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— Photo by Luca Galuzzi - www.galuzzi.it

Stillness predominates in the Sahara, writes Paul Bowles in “Baptism of Solitude.”

In the April 14, 2017 edition of the “Independent,” an article appeared by Katie Foster called “Children as young as 13 attending ‘smartphone rehab’ as concerns grow over screen time.”

Anyone who’s lived in the United States for more than an hour knows the United Kingdom is not alone in this “fight.” There are tables in every food court in every mall in the country where four or five young adults are sitting, eyes glued to the screens of some electronic device withholding presence from their comrades.

I have long wondered what the quality of silence is like in their homes. Is there any? Do members of their family or any family have a time and place for solitude? Are periods of solitude encouraged? Do family members read books of a meditative nature that help them sort life’s plaguing details?

I am especially aware of these issues at the moment because I’m reading a book of essays by the expat American writer Paul Bowles, “Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993.”

Bowles died in 1999 at 81 and, though an inveterate traveler, called Tangier, Morocco his home for more than 50 years. As a person attentive to what is, he began to absorb the bare bones reality of Africa, especially the silence one finds upon entering the Sahara.

In describing that silence Bowles hints as why those addicted to media-screen realities refuse to adjust their lives to include solitude. It’d require going cold turkey.

In a piece he wrote for “Holiday” in 1953 called “Baptism of Solitude,” Bowles says that, whether a person has gone into the Sahara once or 10 times, the first thing that commands his attention is the “stillness.” In that “hard stony place ... an incredible, absolute silence prevails.”

Even in the busy marketplaces, he says, “a conscious force [exists] which [resents] the intrusion of sound.” The underlying silence is so great that noise is minimized and eventually dispersed. Even the sky at night joins in; it “never really grows dark” but remains “an intense and burning blue” as if silence will not let the pilgrim go.

Then Bowles points to an inevitable conflict. He says, once you step outside “the gate of the fort or town” you’re staying in, you either “shiver and hurry back inside the walls, or you will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to you.”

The French have a phrase for the latter; they call it “le baptême de solitude,” the baptism of solitude.

It’s an experience of aloneness but has nothing to do with loneliness because loneliness presumes memory. Out there in that “wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares,” Bowles says, “even memory disappears.” A person doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.

Then a strange interior “reintegration” occurs and “you have the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course.” It’s the scriptural paradox: Unless the grain of wheat dies, it will not have life but, if it accedes to reality, it will live and multiply.

Bowles is speaking about the Sahara, of course, but he’s also speaking about the experience of solitude and silence anywhere. When a person encounters silence he’s not “quite the same as when he came.”

William Wadsworth, the poet, spoke of his need for this way of being. Social intercourse with friends and neighbors might be fine, he says in his famed poem “Personal Talk,” but:

 

Better than such discourse doth silence long,

Long, barren silence, square with my desire;

To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,

In the loved presence of my cottage-fire,

And listen to the flapping of the flame,

Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.
 

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who was one of the 20th-Century’s champions of solitude, was more prescriptive. He said, when silence and solitude are absent from our lives, we never become the person we were meant to be. The latter requires a trip to the desert.

In his “The Silent Life,” Merton says all people “need silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from becoming perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting.”

No one can remain happy for long, he says “unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul.” He treats it as a law of nature.

How would you begin to explain such a process to one of the screen-addicted teens at the mall? One study said half the teens in the United States send 50 or more texts in a day, while one in three send more than 100; that’s 3,000 a month. The numbers seem high but the study noted as well that 15 percent of the teens surveyed send more than 200 texts a day. Twelve texts an hour?

The screen. A study by Common Sense says that, when added up, teens are logged onto a screen of some sort nearly nine hours a day, with those in the tween category logging in at six, almost as much as they sleep at night.

This oblique disregard for solitude manifests itself in how teens do homework. They have the TV on, and take breaks to text or network in some fashion. One study says three-quarters of teens listen to music while doing homework.

What can be the quality of such work? What can be the depth of thought? Maybe it’s better to ask: How much better could that person’s work be if done with greater thought and concentration, in studious solitude?

Psychologist Ester Buchholz in “The Call of Solitude” links solitude to creativity. In an article she wrote for “Psychology Today,” she says, “Research on creative and talented teenagers suggests that the most talented youngsters are those who treasure solitude.”

By delving into the depths of the unconscious, solitude helps a person “unravel problems ... figure things out ... emerge with new discoveries ... unearth original answers.”

On this point, Merton keeps hammering away. Without solitude, he says, a person is “no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself. He no longer makes decisions for himself, he lets them be made for him. He no longer acts upon the outside world. But lets it act upon him. He is propelled through life by a series of collisions with outside forces. His is no longer the life of a human being but the existence of a sentient billiard ball, a being without purpose and without any deeply valid response to reality.”

Bowles saw how sentient billiard balls begin to carom when silence is rejected. People cling to a phantasm of who they are rather than the person they are meant to be.

 

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