3.20.2009

Hieronymo's Mad Againe

I'm guessing you've felt it: blogging is dead. I'm a little surprised I was taken in for so long -- I tend to be great at spotting false idols as they come along. At worst, as in my case, blogging has become an indulgent delusion; at best, it seems increasingly like an exercise in intellectual inbreeding.

My hope for blogging was that it would allow space and time for sustained and respectful disagreement. Instead, it has become the latest victim a blob-like force in our culture that leads people to seek sources that reinforce their opinions and ignore (or ridicule) sources that challenge their opinions. The red team knows where to look to find its intellectual ammunition. The blue team knows as well. The reader seeks what he already has. If he is unusual, he may eavesdrop on the other team from time to time, but he will never be persuaded. He will not change.

This phenomenon is most obvious in politics and religion, of course: if you approve of President Obama, turn on MSNBC, and they'll give you good reasons to approve. If you disapprove, turn on Fox News, and they'll give you good reasons to disapprove. But the problem, in my judgment -- and it really is a problem -- has almost nothing to do with superficial things like religion and politics: it has to do with our experience of "identity." Let me show a story:
When I was in about 2nd grade I was walking on the sidewalk with a friend. He asked, "Do you like MSU or U of M?" I had never considered the question before...

When I was in about 3rd grade I was walking on the sidewalk with the same friend. He asked, grinningly, "Are you a virgin?" I didn't know what he meant. But I could tell it was a setup, so I looked at him sideways and said... "No?" And his eyes exploded and he started laughing at me, so I said, "Yes, yes... I am."

When I was in about 4th grade I was walking on the sidewalk with the same friend. He asked, are you a republican or a democrat? I didn't know what he meant, and told him I wanted to go play football... he made fun of me for being stupid.
Eventually, I must have learned my lesson: that kind of detachment, whether it stemmed from lack of information or apathy, was unacceptable. My friend had mastered the process of constructing identity, and in my retrospective judgment, it doesn't seem like a coincidence that he would be crowned homecoming king in a class of 425 students our senior year in highschool.

In the years that followed, I had a number of false starts: I tried to make collecting Canadian pennies my "thing." I tried to wear my clothes like everyone else, or different, to make that my "thing." I tried being a Christian, an atheist, and a libertarian. I tried all kinds of hats -- fortunately, few of them fit.

Years later, I am increasingly convinced of the adage that you can never completely trust someone who loved the high school years. I'm convinced that this process of identity construction sits in us like a tapeworm, and as it grows, we must feed it more and more and more. We are always on the brink of being unable to keep convincing ourselves that we believe that we.... enjoy golf, have a Ph.D., are atheists, are Jewish, are former and possibly future Adventists, or Baptists, or Catholics, that our fathers were in the military, or psychiatrists, or basketball coaches, or rich, or poor, or that we are democrats, or republicans, etc.

These examples are bad enough, but worse still are the identities we cling to that lead us to say, "I am a postmodernist," or "I am an idealist," or "I agree with Derrida," or "Levinas," or "Moses," or "Jesus," or "Howard Zinn," or "Alan Bloom." These commitments diminish the hunger for the true nourishment, obviate the need for direct revelatory experience, keep us from knowing our real identity: these kinds of commitments keep you from listening and seeing what would otherwise be so full, so tangible, so direct. To agree and disagree misses the point.

Last night I did not want to fall asleep because I found myself bringing back to life the physical structures of my childhood neighborhood. By the end of the night, I had reconstructed trees, grass (in June, and in August), rotting wooden fences, a dent in my parents' driveway, two different pavements (they repaved my street when I was about ten), the neighbors' kids, the inside of eight or nine houses, the outside of ten or twelve. I had looked down into those half-circle things that are up against the side of houses, usually next to basement windows, had seen last year's fallen leaves. I had gathered again in the rain a bucket of a thousand worms with my seven-year old brother, played catch with my father, learned to "skid-out" on a big-wheel. I was not for or against any of it. I had no identity but my name, and that meant little to me.

But we have decided, most of us, to take our stand. We have carved out a corner, planted our flag, and we are determined to live under it. If we are nothing else, we are consistent--especially if part of our identity consists in proclaiming inconsistency! Against this trend, I have little hope. There are ancient methods for unencumbering ourselves, but they are understood (correctly) as disciplines, and we tend to believe discipline is antithetical to personal freedom, which is something we think we have and need to protect.

We have disclaimed the authority of ancient religious texts, but we cling to authority more than ever. We value our parents' opinions, or our teachers', or our President's, so much that we have not learned to trust ourselves. We are secretaries, taking dictation for what should be our own autobiographies from elsewhere. Is my rhetoric too high? Have I written too much? Do you agree with me, or disagree? Or -- ?

What do you allow yourself to simply notice? If you are "a progressive," can you withhold judgment? stay quiet? look with fresh eyes? If you are Jewish, does it change the way you listen? If you are a "conservative," are you on guard against? If you are an atheist, in a roomfull of Christians, must you feel separate? If you are something, can you become nothing again?

"No," I say to my Dad, who is visiting for a weekend from 600 miles away, "I have changed. You must be looking with old eyes. It is possible to change, but so few people ever do that you may be lulled into thinking that nobody changes; you may be looking with eyes that cannot see change."

And I was right, even if (to give credit where credit is due), Jiddu Krishnamurti -- Human beings have built in themselves images as a fence of security -- and T.S. Eliot -- the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase -- had been right before me, even if I was not the first to discover this fact of human nature, I discovered it firsthand, for myself, not by reading, but by looking with no-identity-but-curiosity, by looking with no judgment, by reading against myself whenever my identity took up a location, by walking around the neighborhood aimlessly, dragging out the hours before sunset, kicking a pebble sometimes.

I'm putting this blog on a probably-permanent vacation because those few of you who have read this much cannot learn from me -- and because those of you who haven't read this much cannot learn from me. I'll keep reading and responding to other blogs, but for my purposes, this technology is too limiting, and less effective than personal messages, phone calls, and shared experiences.

6 comments:

Wishydig said...

i figure that a blog is only worth posting on when i feel like it. and that when i feel like it it really is worth posting.

and i make no promise of feeling like it or not feeling like it. post when you will. why commit to not?

Casey said...

Because I can always contradict myself, if I feel like it... sometimes commitment satisfies my mania.

Wishydig said...

some day you'll find yourself.

you'll be so surprised where.

imentr

Casey said...

Now you're talkin' my language.

littlebirdsings said...

"Human beings have built in themselves images as a fence of security" -- this is great; I am reminded of something Adyashanti said: the point of the search is to exhaust the seeker. Because it's when you stop looking, stop seeking, stop trying to figure it all out that the wondrous suddenly, unmistakably and uncontrollably appears. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELTiD7L_nU8

Casey said...

I love Adyashanti.