— 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.

 

During a baseball game on television the other night, one of the players smashed a home run into the right-field stands.

— “A Lonely Grave,” by Alexander Gardner, pictures Union soldiers standing near a comrade’s grave at the battlefield of Antietam, September 1862
Current Civil War: “To take away or radically modify the health-support system of 22 million Americans is an Antietam of sorts in that it strips people of the support — MRIs, medications — that keep them afloat.”

 

It’s a national tragedy that the United States is currently engaged in a fight over who deserves or has a right to assistance when they’re in pain or their life is threatened by some physical or emotional illness.

It’s a shame but not a surprise. It’s just the latest explosion in our current civil war, which began when the United States had its emotional breakdown several decades ago. Neurotic symptoms are everywhere.

And let’s not minimize the situation; it is a civil war. It’s not a war of bullets and bombs as in the original War of the States but a war of ideology when threats, identity-slashing labels, lying, and administrative decisions that punish and exclude, are used as assault weapons.

This kind of warfare is like the cyber warfare discussed of late, in that cyber warfare has nothing to do with bullets and bombs either and yet the hacking and invasion of people’s consciousness by electronically rifling through their private lives has deleterious consequences (for everyone).

Thus to take away or radically modify the health-support system of 22 million Americans is an Antietam of sorts in that it strips people of the support — MRIs, medications — that keep them afloat.

It’s also a stripping away of the economic security that supports emotional well-being as well as access to procedures that end pain and allow people to feel life is worth living.

The president of the United States has referred to the current measures to strip people of such supports as “mean” but to support the wellbeing of his fragile ego, has railed against the weak as unworthy for any communal consideration.  

And this from a man who never cooked a meal or washed a dish, from a man whose main source of mental anguish derives from whether to install the Kohler K-4886 or Panorama Round Ceramic bidet in a football-field-size bathroom.

But keep in mind that the issue of the providing for or stripping people of health care is only a symptom. The real issue is economic and has to do with the concept and definition of worth, what or who is worth something.

The current prevailing ethic is: Some citizens are worth more than others and therefore deserve more attentive consideration. The same ethic also says: Some citizens are worth nothing and therefore deserve nothing from the collective coffers.

Worth is a political economic variable — as university professors might phrase it — because it has to do with the differential allocation and provision of resources to those whose needs are defined as worthy versus those whose needs are minimized or dismissed as unimportant.

Worthy means “worthy of our attention” and worthy of our attention means worthy of receiving that attention when we are in need. We allocate resources to those persons, groups, places, and events we say will help the nation progress.

I have a hard time trying to fathom how a person manages — practically as well as psychologically — after he has been defined as having no worth by the collective and is refused support even when his cries for help are loud.

Thus the debate over “pre-existing conditions” is a sinister, sadistic joke. It translates into: If you come to us without being sick, without something wrong, we will attend to your needs. But if you come with medical problems you are out, we will not pay for what ails you. The logic is: Come back when you get better, then we’ll help.

Who we define as worthy of the community’s attention is what constitutes the definition of “united,” whether we consider ourselves a national community or a pack of tribes pitted against each other over supposed scarce resources.

The current civil war is a tribal war fueled by the policies and projects of the financially and culturally worthy who benefit from the conflict. Amid this war the president marveled recently: Hey, the stock market keeps going up!

The guilt of “taking the life” of fellow citizens is diminished or not felt at all through the creation of relational distance. Keeping the victim out of sight.

Thus the conflicting tribes have developed their own language and cultural reference points which serve as buffers between themselves and the enemy — the person or group of lesser or no worth.

In his July 11, 2017 column in The New York Times, “How We Are Ruining America,” David Brooks addressed the issue of relational distance and some of its consequences.

He says the well-to-do, the worthy, structure exclusionary, distance-creating, worthlessness-defining strategies to protect their privilege. In terms of this kind of protectionism he says, “Members of the college-educated class have become good at making sure their children retain their privileged status.” They do this “by making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”

In the past 20 years, he adds, the affluent have increased what they spend on education by 300 percent while such expenditures for “every other group is basically flat.”

Those with the cultural, financial, and political capital to define worthiness also create and implement policies that say to some, as Brooks notes, “You are not welcome here.” In terms of health care, your body is of no value.

But it’s far more nefarious because the policies are geared to take away from the unworthy the means to consider membership anywhere. They become displaced.

Surprisingly, Brooks confesses his own blindness. He says he recently took a friend to a gourmet sandwich shop who had “only” a high school education.

When she looked at the sandwich menu with “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients such as soppressata, capicola, and striata baguette listed, she froze. The tribal “cultural signifiers” got to her.

When asked if she would like to go elsewhere “she anxiously nodded yes,” Brooks says, “and we ate Mexican. (He should have known better; he should have inquired of her from the beginning where she preferred to eat.)

In terms of the health-care policies that are currently being asked for, it is possible that close to 22 million people will never see a Padrino M.D., they will never be the recipients of Pomodoro surgery. The medical counterparts of soppressata, capicola, and striata baguettes will never be there for their ailing bodies to taste.

The only way to end the war is to transcend political economies that speak in terms of deserving and entitlement and to adopt a view of life where we meet the needs of everyone. This means treating the poorest among us as the richest treat themselves. That is a 21st-Century Sermon on the Mount.

Healthcare-wise it means that every citizen of the United States, at the very least, will receive the same level of care a U. S. Senator gets from the collective and the president from private coffers. When this occurs we will finally be able to say: Blessed are the Peacemakers.

 

— Bust of Seneca, by an anonymous sculptor of the 17th Century now in the Museo del Prado

Seneca the Younger wrote that clemency was not a sign of weakness.

It’s always enlightening to see two great minds come to loggerheads over the values they embrace and in doing so shed light on what it means to be human.

What comes to mind first is William F. Buckley’s interview with the great American poet Allen Ginsberg on “Firing Line” in September 1968 — two great thinkers agonizing over what they see at the heart of the American soul. It was Buckley’s show but Ginsberg made it a free-for-all.

Another case comes to mind but it’s strange because the two “contestants” live two centuries apart. I’m thinking of the Roman writer Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C. to A.D. 65), known as Seneca the Younger, and the Argentinian priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whom most folks better know as the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis.

Their issue has to do with moral standards as well but more specifically with what is required of a moral person toward those in need, toward the least among us. For Christians the answer’s already there: Matthew 25 says what it is and Mark 10 says how to do it.

Seneca, if your ancient history is fuzzy, was the Stoic philosopher who became the Emperor Nero’s tutor (amicus principis). He had been working with the youth for several years before Nero took charge of the Empire at age 16.

Seneca also wrote Nero’s speeches when the boss had to explain something to the Senate or praetorian guard. In 55, he wrote the much-heralded De Clementia, a treatise on the concept and practice of clemency.

It’s not by chance that clemency came to the fore because Nero had just hired a Roman woman, who was an expert in killing by poison, to toast his several-years-younger adoptive brother, Britannicus — during the family dinner!

By taking on clemency, Seneca wanted to let the Roman Senate and people know that the new emperor was not going to be a neutralizer in the way Caligula and Claudius were; the new man was going to be a man of clemency.

And showing clemency was not a sign of weakness, as Seneca pointed out, but of mensch-hood; it was also a wise political strategy. When someone harmed another, for example, the emperor could demonstrate his power by showing restraint to those in need.

But while Nero’s ventriloquist claims that clemency is good, he makes it quite clear that mercy (misericordia) is not and forgiveness (venia), worse. He said that the person who practices mercy is sick in the head, a pusillanimous soul. A show of mercy is two old ladies being suckered into letting a pleading prisoner go free.

What’s troubling is that Seneca, as a Stoic, also embraced the concept of simplicity. Living like a poor person, he said, was an essential ingredient to living a healthy life (vita beata). And the good person (sapiens) practices what he preaches (“concordet sermo cum vita”).

But in daily life Seneca was a money-grubber; he owned a ton of houses; his personal treasury topped 300,000,000 sesterces. He was a money-lender, a loan shark — though the data on this are slim — whose practices caused great pain and suffering among the Britons.  

The Roman writer Cassius Dio in Book 62 of his history says, “Seneca, in the hope of receiving a good rate of interest, had lent to the islanders 40,000,000 sesterces that they did not want, and had afterwards called in this loan all at once and had resorted to severe measures in exacting it.”

Dio says it was the reason the Britons revolted against Rome under the aegis of the famed Queen Boudica, an ancient Jeanne d’Arc.   

But we cannot fault Seneca for inconsistency; he was walking the walk, that is, he said mercy was for the dogs and so he treated people like dogs — or is that being too harsh?

The ideas of Nero’s tutor are relevant today because last year Pope Francis had declared 2016 the year of “Mercy” for Roman Catholics. He said every Catholic was called to think about the meaning of mercy in his daily life and then find situations to practice it.

At the beginning of the Jubilee year, as it was called, he wrote “Misericordiae Vultus,” a short note in which he laid out the integral relationship between mercy and Christian identity.  

He finished the year with “Misericordia et misera” essentially asking folks how they did thinking about things and whether they planned to make mercy an integral part of their lives.

No one who’s ever read anything about Pope Francis or seen him on TV needs to ask if this guy’s the real deal, whether his “sermo” is consistent with his “vita.” The guy is a font of mercy.

On Holy Thursday 2014, for example, he went to the “Don Gnocchi Center” in Rome and washed and kissed the feet of elderly and disabled women some of whose dogs were bent and swollen. Someone I taught years ago recently remarked that such acts are only symbolic, but look at the photos, watch the videos, this man is in love. When’s the last time you washed and kissed an old lady’s fat feet in a hospital like they were yours?

The Pope lives in a small apartment; he eats with a little community; he drives a little Fiat 500L, which people laughed at when they saw it tootling down Central Park West a couple of years ago.

I’d like to add that for his 80th birthday celebration Francis invited not bishops and cardinals but eight homeless people to his house for breakfast. Once again he was saying that living simply is a component of mercy, which requires that the daily basic needs of the poor and those without be given priority, not stealing health care from the poor to fund tax-cut-handouts to billionaires.

During Bill Maher’s television program “Real Time” two weeks ago, Ohio Governor John Kasich — who lost to Donald Trump in the last presidential campaign — addressed the topic of mercy in terms of health care in the United States.  

Maher asked him: Is healthcare a right or a commodity, is it clemency or is it mercy?

Feeling pressed, the governor gave in; he said it was a right. He said his ethical stance on human relationships does not allow him to embrace “the easiest thing,” that is, “[to] run over the weak and those who live in the shadows and those who don’t have much.” He added: “It is not right.”

All this is going on while the United States is engaged in a civil war, is at loggerheads over, its identity. What is America going to be? What “virtues” are in and which are out? Will we include mercy in our newly-constructed national identity?

A lot of people today talk about the importance of “difference” but they confuse it with the million-and-one varieties of cereal on the supermarket shelves; they refuse to take into account the real needs of others that differ from their own. Difference becomes a joke. Then they stigmatize the weak and needy, calling them cheats, deadbeats, freeloaders, druggies, the incorrigible scum of the earth. Why would anyone want to care for that crowd’s health!

Thus these days I hear more discouraging than encouraging words particularly from politicians who spit on mercy; they are assassins of hope.

I love the National Anthem of the West, “Home on the Range.” It says a good place is “where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.” I think the writer of that song was talking about mercy, taking into account the needs of all rather than loading them onto a slow train to nowhere.

—  Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain

John Keats made this drawing of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase in about 1819. It is currently displayed at the Louvre.

April is National Poetry Month. For some rhymed souls it is a time to dig out their Mary Oliver and scan a line or two while others sit quietly in their dens hoping the Muse will come and fill their pen with delight.

While such activities are most appropriate during the month when “Lilacs [are breeding] out of the dead land,” as T. S. Eliot says, that is not the purpose of its observance. It’s more complex.

National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to goad each person in its country to accept responsibility for engaging poetry at an intimate level and to recognize that poetic consciousness is key to spiritual growth and development.

In a way, the month must be seen as one of the 30-day retreats the Jesuits run when people gather unto themselves to assess to what extent they’ve dedicated their lives to the proposition that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  

Those words appear in the second to last line of John Keats’s classic “Ode to a Grecian Urn” written in 1819. And the last line of the poem says, and I’ll paraphrase it here, that that axiom is all a person needs to know in life: beauty is truth and truth beauty.

It is quite a bold assertion and one wonders whether, for example, the mandates of the New Testament might fit into that. But that’s a no-brainer because the New Testament in its own metaphorical terms says the same thing.

The great T. S. Eliot found the Keatsian proposition troubling. In an essay on Dante he veered from his subject for a minute to note, “The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless.” Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth “is grammatically meaningless” he said. But for a guy who considered himself smart, it’s surprising that Thomas Stearns took such a reactionary road.

He’s not alone. If you go to the Internet and ask for an analysis of the second-last line of “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” you’ll find a lot of other people similarly irked.

Of course we can turn to Buddhism for an explanation — and a case can easily be made — but I’ll offer Carl Rogers, that great-20th-Century-full-of-insight-beyond-innovative psychotherapist who hit the nail on the head in his 1957 essay “To Be That Self Which One Truly Is.” The title is found in Søren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”

In that essay and elsewhere, Rogers describes what takes place when a person goes through the therapeutic process. He says, first of all, that, when a person comes to him suffering from unknown reasons, their inner conflicts have progressed to the point of disablement. The sufferers find themselves being eaten from within.

He says that in their own terms the sufferers reveal that they had tried every possible mode of denial and deceit to smother the truth but all failed and now they were at a dead end.

Rogers goes on to say that, when his patients come into the office, sitting right beside (or more correctly in front of) them is a façade, a wall they’d built to hide their true state of being, from others as well as themselves. But they unable to lay their weapons down.

He said he noticed that such folks also tend to view the world in black and white. Reality is this or it’s that. Transgendered people, for example, have no standing in that denier’s universe. It is far too complex a matter to juggle behind the façade.

But Rogers says that, once the patient feels at home, he begins to dig through the lies that lay beneath his pain. And in doing so he begins to experience a whole range of feelings and thoughts he never knew he had.

Understandably during their sessions the patient weeps, rages, even falls into a stupor of silence because what he said out loud took their breath away. The truth at first is dumbfounding.

But once the patient confronts fear (the word “ugly” can be traced to fear) and acknowledges the truths revealed, he incorporates the new dimensions to make himself whole.

The patient experiences great relief, and often joy, because he is no longer living a lie. As truths about the self are discovered he begins to dismantle the façade a brick at a time.

Rogers also saw, and his patients soon see it too, that hiding behind untruth requires the expense of great energy. Masquerading costs. Plus the patients admit that while undercover they viewed themselves as despicable and ugly because they were treasonous. They had equated not beauty but mask with truth.

Read Rogers’ essays, he alludes to the disdain people feel for themselves when they constrict themselves to living behind a pharisaical wall. His 1961 classic, “On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy,” is a great place to start.

But what’s heartening about the process of unveiling, of opening one’s heart to the truth of is, to the thing in and of itself, is that a person begins to see a radiant beauty in himself. “Then the body of the Enlightened One,” as Anagarika Govinda reports in his “Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism,” “becomes luminous in appearance, convincing and inspiring by its mere presence.” Truth is Beauty.

Indeed, looking upon, experiencing, the wondrous creation of the radiant self, the peregrinator laughs with gratitude because he cannot figure out why he ever agreed to live a life of abstraction.

He sees that experiencing a thing — one’s person — in and of itself, without modification for political economic or other self-enhancing reasons, is beauty.

And when the person begins to recite this experience to the world he dons the mantle of the poet. In spiritual terms the person enlightened begins upon the path of sainthood, the realm of overflowing silence.

Keats was no idiot. He knew what he was saying. That is why we are grateful for Poetry Month, to remind ourselves that we need to put our house in order, the house of Truth, the house of Beauty. No more needs to be said.

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