Tag Archives: Eckhart Tolle

A narrative of our human nature

Humans’ “emotional fossils,” the rise of ego & the hand of God: pondering life after Charles Darwin, Carl Jung & Eckhart Tolle

I asked my friend, mentor, fellow seeker, and writing posse member John Wylie to discuss the fascinating book he’s writing, qua narrative nonfiction. This also is a test of sorts to see if its exciting ideas are comprehensible to lay readers who may be totally unaware of the battles raging in the field of evolutionary psychology over what amounts to a new vision of our species.—Richard Gilbert

Guest Post by John V. Wylie

Dr. Wylie: why are we “brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd”?

Wylie: “We’re brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd.”

My book is a narrative about my own 35-year secret life exploring the evolutionary narrative of humans, and my subject matter has been the narratives of severely mentally ill patients that I was treating in my “day job” as a psychiatrist.

My first philosophical theater was a maximum security prison where I nearly got killed when an inmate slashed my face and throat. I came away from that experience, having immersed myself in the writings of Charles Darwin, with the conviction that the dominance and submission interactions so evident in prison and in apes had evolved into the authority and obedience in groups so evident in normal human society. But how did this occur?

Mental Illnesses as “Emotional Fossils”

As I worked on this question, I began to realize that the mental illnesses were “emotional fossils” revealing insight into the internal life of our ancestral hominid species. Patients suffering from the two major forms of depression and panic disorder taught me that the two most fundamental fears are separation and being trapped at the periphery of a group, as if “up against the wall of banishment.” These fears greatly intensified in hominids right from the very beginning, serving to tightly bind our ancestral kinship groups together. The central symptom of Schizophrenia—the “sacred disease”—is the experience that one’s thoughts emanate from an external source. Another thread in my inquiry emerged when recent diverse lines of evidence convinced me that our hominid ancestors lived in monogamous groups.

Putting all this together, I deduced that the entity of individual dominance “ascended” into the authority of groups dispensing justice and absolute morality; this helped to sustain and coordinate small groups of multiple monogamous families as if they were organisms. I began to see the hand of God in this transformation from the laws of the jungle to lives lived utterly within the rules of right and wrong. And to view their lives, as harsh as they must have been, to also have been Edenic. All members of a group lived immersed within a single mind that evolved for millions of years to coordinate the survival of their groups. These groups evolved passively by the emergence in each generation of the most fecund (because they were stable, because they were monogamous) and most productive permutations of mutual relationships within groups—not through competition between groups. So these creatures, our ancient ancestors, were inherently peaceful with one another.

Then I recognized that the disorder of mania (the “up” part of bipolar disorder) revealed that, 200,000 years ago, the innovation that resulted in the evolution of our own Homo sapiens species was accompanied by the development of an intensely positive feeling elicited specifically by others admiring us as individuals. The powerful drive to seek this pleasure resulted in the evolution of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors that are tantamount to competitive sexual display. The pervasiveness of this strong proclivity in humans has rendered us at the same time brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. An old-fashioned term for this purely human impulse is vanity.

What Mindfulness May Really Mean

So my narrative has ended up along biblical lines: God created us six million years ago with the innocence of Adam and Eve and evolved in us the power to coordinate our work under a single will for the good of our groups. But now we find ourselves in a fallen state, driven by our vanity to glorify ourselves, and worst of all to usurp the power given to us by God to wage war with one another.

I deeply connect with the writings of Eckhart Tolle. I agree with his definition of ego as that which we fear (separation and banishment) and desire (vanity). Mindfulness involves immersing ourselves in the vast spiritual subcontinent (soul, Jung’s collective unconscious) that continues as our living heritage and is the very “platform” of consciousness from which we are (self)conscious of our most recent “ego-mind.” As violent as our species’ ego has driven us to be, all of its accumulated wants have a purpose that is in the process of coming to pass.

Painfully but inexorably the undeniable movement of our history has been toward the amalgamation into ever larger groups; inevitably we’ll live as a single group as prophesied by Isaiah (and as interpreted by Tolle in his recent bestseller A New Earth). For six million years, individuals evolved to live their lives as a single organism within the minds of their small groups. Now it is our destiny to evolve into one vast spiritual creature with eternal life.

Dr. Wylie's previous book

Dr. Wylie’s previous book

Needless to say, there have been gargantuan problems in weaving together the human narrative with my own personal narrative and all my patients’ narratives, while fiercely protecting their privacy. Then there have been all the blind alleys I have gone down and the technical aspects of evolutionary mechanisms along with the narrative of the evolutionary debates that have raged during the last 35 years. My strategy has been just to pump out one manuscript after another (I’ve done eight) mainly as a way to think it all through again and again until finally I could step back and allow all the narratives to fall into place “on their own.” I’m currently polishing my manuscript and drafting a proposal for prospective publishers.

John V. Wylie is the author of  Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness: A Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Patients and Their Families and blogs about his ideas regarding evolution and human nature at Apes, Ants & Ancestors.


Filed under braids, threads, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, religion & spirituality

Spiritual affinities: Tolle, Rilke, Woolf

Spooky Sky, Moss x

Spiritual Affinities.

I’m pleased to have a guest post today at Daisy Hickman’s Sunny Room Studio on the spiritual insights and strength I’ve drawn from a number of thinkers, especially Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Virginia Woolf. They’ve given me “fragments to shore against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “The Waste Land.”


Filed under blogging, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

Reading Rilke again at Eastertide

Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Sunrise, Double x

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

Letters to a Young Poet

As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.

Rilke cover

Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.

That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.

A key Rilke passage:

Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.

This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.

Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”

Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:

And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?

Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:

As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.

Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.

Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!

And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.


Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet. 


Filed under essay-expository, honesty, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, teaching, education

Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 3

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”


Reading the Bible recently, the thick New English Oxford study edition I’ve toted around for twenty-nine years, I was electrified by John 3: 19–25. In this story Jesus is traveling and teaching, and he meets a Samaritan woman at a well in the heat of the day. It was against Jewish mores to have dealings with the tainted Samaritans, and to speak to an unknown, lone woman.

Jesus wows her by telling her he knows she’s been married five times and is living with a sixth man—why the shunned creature was at the well in the scorching heat instead of filling her pots with other women in the cool of the morning. Maybe she was infertile, a real deal-breaker in those days.

“Sir,” she replied, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the temple where God should be worshipped is in Jerusalem.”

“Believe me,” said Jesus, “the time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on the mountain, nor in Jerusalem.”

This is a radical statement. What he’s staying is that God is not place-based—neither in a pagan mountain shrine nor above even Judaism’s highest holy Temple. God is far from clan-based. By dint of this: not race-based, nor nation-based. Jesus, as I see it, is moving God deeper inside us.

“It is from the Jews that salvation comes,” Jesus continues. “But the time approaches, indeed it is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Such are the worshippers whom the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”

God is spirit.

Not a man in the sky. A spirit—something discovered by us, not created by us—is approached submissively in the human search for truth.

Thus indeed, as Jesus said, the kingdom of God is here, now. As any reader of the New Testament can see, Jesus labored to restore spirituality to religion, in large part by defining God anew and by clarifying core principles. Love thy neighbor. Forgive trespasses. His relentless attacks on human pride and on religious dogma are chronicled throughout the New Testament. He died for his pains, but made his lasting point.

My conviction flows from various sources, from years of reading about human evolutionary history and progress, from a base in my nature, in my suffering, in Christianity, in a heaping dose of Buddhism and a dash of Hinduism, notably of late in Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul. Eckhart Tolle’s writings, especially his religious synthesis A New Earth, have been enormously influential, so I’m tempted to admit I’m New Age and be done with it, except that I view that book as essentially Buddhist. I claim Christianity but I view all great religions much like the American Medical Association now views acupuncture: it works, no one knows why it works, and it doesn’t matter where they stick the needles.

I like Joan Osborne’s question in her beautiful song “One of Us”—with something like 10 million hits in various YouTube versions: What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?

What if God is all of us? What if God exists within all of us?

What if God is that force in human evolution which drives “group selection”? This is the controversial notion that evolution is not just about pair-level “selfish gene” sexual selection but about traits that benefit the larger group. What if God is that force, which caused humans to begin their amazing self domestication—their selection for social harmony and against simian brutes? A separate intentionality within human evolution that impels our altruistic desires. Hitchens would attribute such human progress to the Enlightenment, but it goes back so much farther. And Dawkins won’t admit its possibility for what it introduces: the mysterious will that impels this search for truth, justice, mercy, goodness. That which was instantiated, in purified form, in Christ, Buddha, and Muhammed. Those qualities which humans have been idealizing for millions of years.

We have been selected to serve the whole of us as a living being, not just own own selfish interests.

My God is located in, and defined by, this, by humans’ unquenchable search for their own and their species’ true path.

That utter mystery that we and our science circle.

What if that’s God?

That for which we as yet have no name?

There’s despair everywhere, such lost faith in our species, but there’s yearning everywhere too. And neither that impulse nor anyone’s hard-won faith is misplaced. Not me, but some few blaze with joyous awareness—with Grace. Many are called, few chosen.

The afterlife? That’s a young person’s concern. But I place my spiritual afterlife in the collective spoken of by Carl Jung. One day, long after my body is dust and my egoic shell has vanished with it and others are living the human eternal self—that innermost core in which we’re all the same—around the globe human seekers will turn, more or less, to the same page.

This is my faith. It’s what drives me to my knees in prayer, down with the world’s other brokenhearted sinners, trying to tap what’s holy. I’m sure we’ll finally see and honor the greatest human mystery, not the banal reality of human evil but the real news of the goodness that dwells within and which we can access. Then maybe we’ll agree, at last, what we’re talking about when we talk about God.

Like me, Christopher Hitchens, angry child of God, didn’t have the final answer. And, sorry Uncle, not even Southern Baptists have quite solved the equation, not yet.

But of course there’s a God.

May peace be with you. Happy New Year. Namaste.

(Elizabeth Westmark has an interesting post, on her new reading blog, about Eric Weiner’s recent book Man Seeks God.)


Filed under evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 2

L-R: Angel, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and my son, Tom, in Florence, Italy

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence

—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”


The late Christopher Hitchens was like that dread baptismal tank. I cowered before him.

Sure, I admired his courage and his skillful prolificacy—I saw him as a great if often wrongheaded journalist of ideas—but flinched at his rage and at his sheer meanness. Especially regarding the straw-man figure of God he erected in order to mount an attack in the shadow of his intellectual superior, the atheist evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.

As a friend said, it is significant that Hitchens and Dawkins are both British. In the European way, England mixed religion and the State—which is to say, it mixed religion and politics. While established religions tend to become political and prideful entities, formally merging them with politics—the most cravenly primate of necessary human activities—is bad medicine. And, besides, the two world wars so ravaged Europe that they put the quietus on any glimmer of a heavenly God.

Europe, by and large, is now spiritually spent for at least those two reasons.

But whatever his case, Hitchens seemed willfully, belligerently, gleefully tone deaf and clueless about religion. And I imagine him contemptuous even of spirituality—just, to him, more watery weak-kneed warm and fuzzies covering terror at death. Admit it, the disciple of Dawkins seemed to sneer, it’s all about our selfish genes. He called himself, in contrast to the deluded religious, a man of the Enlightenment. He failed to see that the principles he worshipped flowed from the same deep well as religion and were fostered by religion.

But I must explain what I believe, and that’s hard and it’s tricky.

The least of it is that mentioning religion positively, let alone invoking God, now inflames most people. The bigger issue is that my notion of God is evolving and is cumbersome to explain. Hitchens, along with those whom I imagine as true believers, including more than a few in my extended family, might see me at best as a soft-headed New Ager. At worst, they’d peg me as just another secular humanist.

But to Hitchens I’d also be a cowardly atheist who can’t man up like him and look squarely at life’s ugly reality—that it’s a bitch and then we die—and so dresses up his secular humanism with fairy tale garnish about a man in the sky.

That’s true only if you accept one literalist notion of God. If you don’t assume the adult task of defining God for yourself.

The Jews, who discovered God 3,000 years ago, did place him in the sky above their temples. He was an angry coot, as we know, a parental super ego sore displeased with his brood. But even though I believe only metaphorically in that God, I see profound significance in the Jews’ discovery and in their moving God into the sky, lifting one God above a welter of demigods.

Their insight was of historic and evolutionary importance.

Next: I open a fresh can of whup-ass on Hitch and define my God.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 1

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

 —William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

 for Tom, with Kierkegaard among the dark Danes


 Three years ago, as my mother lay dying, her youngest sister, Carolyn, died unexpectedly in Texas. Mom dispatched me from my home in Ohio to the funeral, as her designate. Instead of returning to Florida to see Mom again, one last time, I made my way to a vast Southern Baptist Church outside Dallas. Mom and I had a vexed relationship, our harmonics clashed, and that was something I could do.

The minister delivering Carolyn’s eulogy was a kid fresh out of seminary. Irritated as I watched him flail his feet around for all to see behind a clear-glass pulpit, it occurred to me that postmodern style had gone way too far. But then, my boyhood church had had a terrifying plexiglass baptismal tank front and center.

“Carolyn is in heaven with the Lord,” he said. “And she’s in a physical place with a physical body.”

“Amen!” said a beloved uncle, the last of the sons of Delbert and Mittye Rounsaville, Atoka, Oklahoma. My surviving aunts murmured their assent. My cousins and I sat in silence, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that we’d entered a new realm of adulthood. We sat among children of the latest generation—we were their age when we’d first met our Aunt Carolyn.

On her last morning, Carolyn, recovering from surgery, had done her Bible study in bed. She told her twin sister Marilyn, who checked on her, that she was going to rest. Then, apparently in her sleep, she died. A blood clot, they said.

I called Mom to tell her about the service. “It was beautiful, Mom. Aunt Carolyn was really loved. Everyone was there, and people from the church. You would have loved it.”

That was true as far as it went. But I’d been shocked to hear a minister take for granted a belief in a physical afterlife. Accustomed to mild Methodist guidance for twenty years, in a college town in Indiana and in a rural Ohio church, I’d forgotten the literalist notions I must have heard as a boy in the Southern Baptist church.

Our baptismal tank in our small church was kept sloshing. And someone had to get saved every service. Always I sat, rigid with fear, willing myself to invisibility. Once in high school I attended there with another Winn Dixie bagboy, a sweet pothead, who wept and rose, marched his tear-streaked face down the aisle.

In Dallas what truly appalled me was my sense, heightened after chatting with him, that the boy preacher didn’t believe a word of what he’d said. He wanted to comfort, I suppose. But his fancies and his deceitful mien left me feeling ill and angry.

“Everyone’s working on the same problem,” my uncle, a Baptist deacon, told me after the service, surely sensing my angst. “But Christianity got the answer. Some others came close. But it’s like math. There’s only one right answer.”

I was torn between admiration at his certitude and outrage at his blindness. One thing that’s always fueled my hope: the similarities of the world’s great religions.

But my uncle wasn’t too sure, even, about Catholics.

He said he was put off by their emphasis on opulence and on Mary. I understand the former—so many poor people have given so much to that rich church—but after lots of thought I decided I like what to me goes along with it: their use of icons. In a Catholic church, an image of Jesus, sometimes life-sized, dies in agony on the cross; giving Jesus a body makes him both more real and more potent a symbol for those who feel nailed to their own crosses. Of course, there’s something to be said for the way Protestants have purified the cross, turning a torture device—it killed slowly by preventing the crucified from exhaling—into an object of worship. As for Mary, I like the diversity—another human character to identify with—and the way she counters the church’s sexism. Protestants go to the opposite extreme: Mary’s almost missing.

Whenever I get really depressed, I think I should become Catholic. Just submit to its flawed authority, join its humbled masses. Then I realize I’m probably Protestant to the core.

(Merry Christmas, Tom.)

Next: I cower before the mighty Hitchens as before that dread baptismal tank.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

Thoughts at Eastertime, too

Photo of our sheep flock by Claire Gilbert.

This is my second, and final, excerpt from my memoir’s Epilogue. At this point, after the death of our farm helper, Sam, we’ve sold the sheep flock we tended for a decade. My mother has just died. We’re getting ready to list our farm for sale. We’ve been attending a country church for almost a year, and after thirteen years in Appalachian Ohio we feel at last at home as we prepare to leave.

February 15, 2009. “Have you heard the expression ‘Love your neighbor?’ ” Kathy asked the children of Alexander Presbyterian Church. “There was a very special man who had a television show about neighbors that ran for more than thirty years. Have you ever heard of Mister Rogers?”

The children, all four of them—it was an old congregation—shook their heads solemnly No. Fred Rogers had been dead for as long as most of them had been alive, and his reruns hadn’t reached Albany, Ohio. Kathy was prepared for this. She held up a photograph of him from the pulpit.

“Let me read you something that Mister Rogers wrote late in his life,” she continued. “He said, ‘The older I get, the more I seem to be able to appreciate my ‘neighbor’ (whomever I happen to be with at the moment). Oh sure, I’ve always tried to love my neighbor as myself; however, the more experiences I’ve had, the more chances I’ve had to see the uniqueness of each person . . . as well as each tree, and plant, and shell, and cloud . . . the more I find myself delighting every day in the lavish gifts of God, whom I’ve come to believe is the greatest appreciator of all.’

“Mister Rogers is saying that everyone is our neighbor—whoever we are with at the moment is our neighbor. And we should love all those we are with and we should appreciate them for who they are. And God is the one who appreciates all of us for who we are. We should understand that we are all God’s neighbors.”

A woman led the children away, and Kathy turned her attention to us. “I have been thinking about neighbors a good deal as we prepare for another move to a completely different place, to new jobs, to another house, to another community,” she said. “There are a few big differences from our last move. This time we won’t be moving to a farm; we’ll be living in town with neighbors all around us, and we’re not used to that.

“I’m a little concerned that folks will be monitoring our lawn, and we’re accustomed to turning the sheep out when the lawn needs some trimming. And this time our children won’t be moving with us. So for the first time we won’t be moving as a family. And we’ll be living on the fringes of a large city.”

Joann, a pillar of the church, had asked Kathy to speak when Pastor Bob was away. We’d thought Kathy wouldn’t be recognized in a country church on the edge of Albany, but soon everyone had known who she was. The university’s provost was often named, and pictured, in Athens’ newspapers. And the latest news is that she’s been hired as president of a small Methodist-affiliated Ohio college. Otterbein was founded by members of the United Brethren in Christ Church, who were active conductors in Ohio’s Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War and who admitted women on an equal basis with men from the school’s start, in 1847.

Kathy based her sermon on the story, in the Gospel of Mark, about Jesus’ encounter with a “teacher of the law” who has asked him to name the most important commandment. Jesus thunders:

“The most important one is this: ‘Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second most important commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment more important than these two.”

“The connection,” Kathy said, “between loving God and loving your neighbor is not simply that they are the most important commandments but rather that one follows from the other. We need to find ways to do both during these difficult times. And as Richard and I find ourselves moving on to a new life in a new place, we will take these lessons with us.

“We will remember, also, that as members of a church community we are responsible to look out for one another and keep everyone informed about those in need of prayer and assistance as you all do each week. It’s important to take the time to share our own personal trials and tribulations and turn to our neighbors for support and love. We will remember what it feels like to be members of a caring community in which you accept everyone for who they are.”

Her words resonated against the backdrop of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a severe economic recession. The congregation looked up at her, and afterward they shook her hand. She was a natural in the pulpit, but their attention was humbling. It wasn’t just about her role, her place in a secular hierarchy, the esteem in which the world held her. I’m sure they sensed her goodness.


May 5, 2009. I’ve never asked Kathy what she thinks about God. Maybe what she’s found for us, a voluntary community of people trying to be good, is enough. Maybe that is God. Her words implied as much. My notion wouldn’t wash with many people, believers and unbelievers alike. Sam’s minister, for one, would set me straight—again—right quick. I am, I know, an a la carte Christian. Yet, having always spurned dogma, I now struggle for my own definitions. Pastor Bob surely would smile at this, my vanity.

The winter of Sam’s death, trying to grasp why I had been (and am still so often) anxious and angry—and hoping at last to heal—I’d studied a popular psychology textbook. I read there are no healthy Americans, that everyone is distorted from growing up in sick families in a toxic society. The book’s viewpoint seemed tautological: if everyone’s damaged, isn’t that normal? Does everyone truly need therapy? Surely I’d needed it myself, as a disturbed child, as a depressed adolescent. But even if this diagnosis of universal woundedness is valid, it hadn’t helped me live better. Or given me any peace. It had only deepened my pain.

Having read Buddhist philosophy off and on for fifteen years, starting back in Indiana, lately I’ve been meditating with Athens’ newest clergywoman, a Zen priest, her head shaved as bald as mine. “I will end my suffering,” she told me. This pain, she’d said, was anger. I admire her, and find Buddhism’s tools clear and accessible. On my new Facebook page, I’ve listed my religious affiliation as Methodist Buddhist.

Just before she got sick, Mom sent me a paperback book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, a spiritual synthesis with a Zen flavor. I would never have bought this Oprah-endorsed New Age bestseller myself—10 million copies sold!—and threw it aside on the dining room table the day it came. I returned to my recliner to grade freshman papers, and picked up a girl’s essay in which she began to discuss A New Earth. Jess was an art major, sensitive and smart, and was taken with the author’s insights into how the ethereal beauty of flowers, birds, and precious stones can awake people to their own inner essence. I lowered my La-Z-Boy with a thunk, got the book, and started reading.

A New Earth struck me as a masterpiece, and I’ve read it repeatedly in the year since Mom’s death. Its author, Eckhart Tolle—whose gentle outlook sounds a lot like Mister Rogers’s, actually—writes of the “pain-body” each human carries (baggage: familial, racial, sexual, national) and how inability to let go of it mars one’s ability to live fully in the present. He answers the question of what, in you, is irked and angered by the malodorous egos of others: your ego. He defines the ego simply: that part of human nature which “wants and fears.” The ego clings to grievances and fattens on anger; a parasite, it needs the pain-body.

Tolle believes humans are outgrowing the necessary stage of the ravening ego. With his faith in a changing global consciousness, he reinforces my innate, progressive view of history: humans are getting better, evolving. This gives me a fragile faith in some sort of higher power, on the one hand, and a faith in my own future on the other. When young I had wanted to change so badly, to become something else. I am old enough now, the years having washed over me, that, teenage fantasies of genius and outrageous success forgotten, I am what I am. I have a track record, a full resume. But if I might devote myself to passions that have survived, I can grow. I can become what I’m meant to be.

For once I crave a larger context than myself, however. Which is one reason that for the first time since I met Kathy at Ohio State, I’m reading the Bible. I read it for its poetry, I say, but poetry is distilled wisdom. And after Tolle, I’ve concluded that it is an adult’s task to define, for himself, the God he believes in—or doesn’t. Maybe then we can talk. I can’t accept that there’s a deity in the sky or a physical afterlife. Yet I believe there is something within us—a shared will we don’t yet understand—that makes us human. While I view most biblical stories as metaphors, this indwelling force, this impulse toward goodness in human history, appears real. As real as Abraham Lincoln was real before he became, also, a metaphor.

I know that Europe’s great cathedrals, after wars and Holocaust, stand empty. I sense that many people don’t believe anymore in their own species’ innate goodness, let alone in its religions. But as a species we’ve selected against brutes; we’ve nurtured goodness within us as well. Love thy neighbor; forgive trespasses. Hard tasks, but unless people try, are reminded they should try, I wonder: what’s left? It doesn’t seem viable to me that humans can count on mass disillusionment in place of spiritual disciplines. Count on our unknown, unloved neighbors to teach their children to tolerate us as we totter into their paths.

I’m favoring the New Testament: Jesus’ relentless attacks on dogma and hypocrisy thrill me. But I intuit that it’s the Old Testament that wrestles with an underlying and undying mystery. How and why did the long-suffering Jews—the Bible’s famously “stiff-necked” people—discover, some 3,000 years ago, followed by Christians and Muslims, that there’s a greater good than the narrow, prideful self? See that they must serve this good? Their submission is epitomized in the extreme allegory of Abraham, who, preparing to obey God and kill his own son, was at the last moment allowed to slaughter a ram instead.

I’ve always been wary of groups—sensitized as a weak boy against any potentially bullying entities—but I’m starting to see that I can’t shun communities without also forsaking their wisdom. On the eve of our departure, I wish we’d joined our neighbors from the start in a more open-hearted way. I wonder if our children should have gone to Albany’s schools instead of commuting with us into Athens. At the time, I’d told everyone—even myself—that we hadn’t wanted to change their schools yet again. Which was partly true, but now seems largely class bias and hypocrisy. I hadn’t wanted to sacrifice my children to a fading if not extinct democratic American ideal. And yet fully embracing humble Albany might have blessed us all.

Maybe my task, in a time when so many historic links to others are fractured, is to help heal frayed ties or to create new ones. I haven’t ever done it; I’m not sure I can. Long ago I embraced the writer’s image as outsider. But in Alexander Presbyterian Church, I see—in songs and sermons, in handshakes and psalms, in my wife’s words—what has been hidden from me in plain sight. In the face of life’s utter mystery, here is celebration and solace.

Like poetry, our fellowship and our words point only indirectly at what they seek, at what they honor—at what they embody. At what I am struggling at last to name, to call God.


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Narrative among the dark Danes

K. Brian Soderquist, U.S.A.-born and now a Danish citizen, co-author of Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony, teaches my son Tom’s Kierkegaard class this winter in Copenhagen. While on a recent field trip, Brian conveyed to Tom and to his study-abroad classmates an interesting perspective on storytelling that resonates for all nonfiction writers and especially for memoirists:

“I think we should keep in mind that on this trip we’re going to hear a lot of narratives—or stories—that can be different however you tell them. People don’t think about history or themselves in terms of raw facts, they just think of narrative. And we are always negotiating with our previous narratives of ourselves as new events happen to us: I say that as an existentialist, that we are forced into narrative as a method of making sense of an identity that is constantly changing and different from every point of view. The way we present ourselves is never a statement of things as-they-are, but as-you-have-come-to-terms-with-them. Tom here just asked me how I happened to move to Denmark permanently, so I had to summarize fifteen years of my life for a two-minute conversational blurb.”

(This is excerpted from “Brian’s Head, Part One,” an essay on Tom’s blog, Kierkegaard In Me.)

Or as a writer told me, “No one tells everything, Richard!” Chalk another one up for memoir as a species of literature. As if even journalism as allegedly literal as reality TV isn’t edited. Any narrative is partial and cast in a certain light. Truth changes, a fiction.

The intensely passionate truth-searcher Kierkegaard only ever referred to himself as an author, Brian told Tom, occasioning a significant pause of understanding between these two intellectuals at the front of  the bus. I take the meaning: We’ve added the labels: Knight of Faith, Christian philosopher, father of existentialism. Kierkegaard despised labels. But an author he indisputably was: He’d published thirteen books by the time of his death, at age 42, in 1855. His journals, since published and considered his most poetic and beautiful work, run to 7,000 pages.

But in the impatient computer age don’t try this secret for discovering meaning, which he unveiled in Either/Or, Volume I: “Tested Advice for Authors: Set down your reflections carelessly, and let them be printed; in correcting the proof sheets a number of good ideas will gradually suggest themselves.”

(A by-the-by lesson of his life and his existential philosophy for writers: if you want to write and it brings you pleasure, write—it’s the world’s problem if you aren’t any good. Of course, he was published—and also widely regarded as a joke during his lifetime.)

When I was a year older than Tom, I read some Kierkegaard, and what I understood stuck. Amidst

Our Tom, with his buddy Jack

endless paragraphs emerged hard gemstones of truth, everlasting precepts that flashed from his stormy soul: “Truth is subjectivity”; “To defend anything is to discredit it”; “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much”; “Desire is a very sophisticated emotion.”

He’s my favorite philosopher because he didn’t believe in philosophy and created stories, told by wild alter-ego narrators. He published most of his books under their names, though everyone knew it was Soren playing around. “Kierkegaard would have us recognize that we are the authors of our worlds and have us assume responsibility for that authorship, recognizing that it derives from values that we have chosen,” explains Donald Palmer in Kierkegaard for Beginners. He tells a wonderful story of young Soren‘s strange upbringing: His father sent him to a Latin school with instructions to bring home the third highest grade. “It’s easy for a genius to get the best grade,” Palmer explains the strategy. “But to get the third best, he must learn psychology. He must figure out who the second and fourth smartest boys are and place his own work between theirs.”

I wasn’t and haven’t been patient enough to stick with Kierkegaard at length, but perhaps I should, considering that my most cherished philosophical zingers came from him. As an adult my profound spiritual touchstones are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. Both works speak to writing’s, as well as to life’s and each sex’s, larger reality and deeper purpose. While more clear than Kierkegaard, who trafficked in irony, and rich for me conceptually, neither has left me with the wealth of one-liners to compare with those I quoted above. But then, I was twenty-two when I read the Danish bard, and I may be readier now to deal with him with greater conceptual understanding.

John Updike, in his last videotaped interview, with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, said that a diminution of energy had changed his writing over the years. Some wonder was lost. He spoke of a scene in Rabbit Run where the protagonist, abandoning his wife, strokes his hand across the velvety foliage of a privet hedge as he leaves the premises.

“Your ability to care about that kind of detail I think slightly diminishes,” said Updike, who nevertheless carried on. He was, incidentally, a serious student of Kierkegaard.

Forgive. Love. Create. That’s all there is. All there ever was. To go on, in fear and trembling, in the face of eternity. Tom knows this already, at barely twenty-one. And he feeds his soul this winter on the oeuvre of a man who looked at eternity, searching and suffering for transcendence from earthbound blindness.

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