Personality Theory via Agape

It took about twenty or twenty-two years of knowing myself to realize how tremendously suggestable I am. If in the story I’m reading, the characters are enjoying sausages and beans, I become very interested in sausages and beans, and if I have some about, am likely to cook myself some. Exactly how likely I am to cook those sausages and beans, is directly related to how much I like those characters, and how much I am enjoying the story. This receptivity to suggestion, is probably a mark of high trait openness. When reading a book or listening to a lecture, I can almost always find a way to agree with the argument. I very nearly do believe everything that I read. This doesn’t mean that I believe one thing today and a very different one yesterday, it just means that I can easily understand how very different viewpoints approximate, or gesture towards reality. All this tells me, I have a stronger tendency towards convergent than divergent thinking.  

As a convergent thinker, I’m generally interested in the places where different disciplines actually come together and entertain common ground. Early on in my reading career, Madeline L’Engle introduced to me the region where physics and theology get entangled, and a few years later Simone Veil delighted me with her mystical and mathematical contributions to that conversation. M. Scott Peck has always been a favorite for showing me how psychology and spirituality can speak with and inform one another, and since discovering Peck, Eric Fromm, Karl Jung, and Jordan Peterson have taken over that fascinating conversation for me.   

One of the most interesting topics in the disciplines of sociology, and psychology, has always been for me Personality Theory, the place where they come together. A question that both disciplines are interested in, is how do you, how do I come about? How does something as beautiful and complex as the personalities of those we know and love best come to be?  

Eric Fromm lays out how the personality of even the fully formed infant, is still entirely latent, entirely unconstructed when it first makes its appearance in human society. “Even after being born, the infant is hardly different from what it was before birth, it cannot recognize objects, it is not yet aware of itself, and the world as being outside of itself. IT only feels the positive stimulation of warmth and food, and it does not yet differentiate warmth and food from its source: mother. Mother is warmth, is food, mother is the euphoric state of satisfaction and security. The state is one of narcissism, to use Freud’s term.”  

What is the process by which categorically irresponsible narcissism becomes an net-working individual, culpable, capable, and altruistic, or anything else for that matter?  

It is a question mythology, religion, biology, psychology, and sociology in all their varied forms have tried to answer. In my view, each of these comparatively different approaches have offered their own valuable contributions. If this is so, what kind of language, what kind of conceptual framework will allow us to listen to each of these disciplines without discarding the essential contributions of any one of them? In what mind will all these participants be allowed to speak? What will the posture of that mind be? And what commitments will that mind need to avoid being either “This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained,/Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”(JVC), or “This fundamentalist so frame constrained,/that any mental step becomes a sprain.” (OEM)? This question, to some extent, will be the topic for my presentation at the Curator‘s Literature Camp this weekend.  

If you want a tremendous course in Personality Theory from a literary, mythological, and psychological perspective, Jordan Peterson’s 2017 lecture series on the subject is incomparable. Like many of our greatest thinkers, Peterson is subject to mental instability and monomania. And like many of our thinkers, has gone through transitions in his thinking and will go through transitions in his thinking, but the speaker in the 2017 series is truly a paragon of lucidity, integrity, and stability.  

Through Peterson, I’ve recently discovered John Verveake, another tremendous Canadian thinker who shows the timelessness of historical philosophy, weaving it together with contemporary cognitive science. Verveake’s most profound insight for me so far, is in Personality Theory, where he locates Agape in the Christian sense as the mechanism of development in personality. For me, this insight maps remarkably well onto early 20th Century theories of personality development like the looking-glass self or social mirroring theory.  

The looking-glass self, and social mirroring theory are only different from each other in the ways they are separately prepared to emphasize the opposing directions of reflection. Social mirroring emphasizes more how my behaviors mimic the other’s behaviors I perceive, while the looking-glass self emphasizes how my I respond to the other’s perception of my behaviors.  

Social mirroring theory discusses the mechanism of personality development as my mimicking your treatment of me in my treatment of both myself and you and others. The looking-glass theory discusses the mechanism of personality development as my imagining how I appear to you, evaluating myself on the basis, and then responding out of my interpretation of how your actions towards me make my identity appear. Systematically, I revise myself according to what I think we both need in the situation to achieve some good, and out of this my identities appear.   

This kind of thing is even more apparent, or better understood when it comes to dialogue and language, in that my words to you are always responding to my interpretation of what you meant by your words to me. But where the looking glass theory takes this a step further, is that even the rubric, or framework of my interpretation of what you say, comes from the concept of self that others reflected back to me before you came along, and before I had the nuanced grammar of language to process your feelings towards me, I processed your feelings towards me through the embodied drama of my five senses.  

This theory implies, and I suspect says truly, that relationship precedes identity. Before there is definition, there is relation.  

You are the result of internalizing the attention people have paid to you. A popular expression of this theory, is something like, “I am the combined effort of everyone I have ever known.” 

This is a very positive formulation of identity, because, if you at all love yourself, if you like who you are becoming, it translates directly into gratitude, one of the most life-giving emotions you can feel.  

How do you come about? The net is truly vast. As wide as being itself. Physics, mythology, metaphysics, history, and biology, now all rise clambering, with their unique contributions to the question. Each should take their turn to speak. 

You are the result of internalizing the attention people have paid to you. There is a tremendous power then in the attention we pay to eachother, and especially in the attention we pay to children, because it is literally the power which creates persons. It is the way in which we participate with God. This co-creation, this participation with the formation of personality, is what Verveake sees as one of our primary relations to the Divine. Agape, is the primary characteristic of the attention necessary to transform the original narcissism of the infant into the self-reliant, self-actualized, and self-giving imago dei of the fully formed human being.  

In Verveake’s formulation, God is love. God is the Agape we give eachother. God is our mimicry of the unconditional love that we have received. This mind-blowing revelation, may not be a fully-satisfying theology, but it is a door flung wide open to the dusty and stale archives of Empiricist sociology through which the glorious Empire of theology may come roaring back in. 


The Scientist Versus the Mystic

To some extent, I left the possible connections between new sensory input (NSI) or existing cognitive structure (ECS) predominancy and social, political, and psychological categories up to the reader in my last blog post, because of the difficulty of credibly tracing those connections. Surface tendencies between NSI and ECS saliency predominance can easily be traced to positions such as the traditional or the reactionary, but the very ease and universality with which we can map these concepts onto personal or psychological tendencies can make them deceptive. Since we can categorize into an existing cognitive structure one of the ways there is an interrelation between the NSI to ESC ratio in say, poets compared to critics, its easy to let that association over define the binary, and lose track of the multiplicity of other ways NSI/ESC are explanatory of the difference. The very rudimentary nature of the NSI/ESC relationship makes it a slippery concept to work with. So many other concepts easily flow out of it, that zeroing in on any of those concepts runs the risk of losing or ignoring other processes that are integral to the concept being considered.  

It should be understood, that while constitutively opposed, NSI and ESC are not independent of each other. Like the yin and the yang, one is always present and involved in the other. Always they are responding to eachother, wrapping eachother up, attending to eachother’s activities. Despite the difficulties in their separation and application to other psychological or social patterns, I do have an intuition about how they relate to convergent versus divergent thinking patterns that I hope I can spell out. The most helpful understanding of convergent versus divergent thinking for me can be taken in the comparison of the terms synthesis and analysis. Synthesis means to accord a unity to separate components, while analyses is to anal a unity into its constituents. Something of the difference in technique between the scientist and the mystic I think is suggested here.  

To put things in planer language, convergent thinking is the type of thought that associates separate ideas into a group, or assimilates data into a hypothesis. It may be either systematical or intuitive. Divergent thinking is keen to pay attention to the difference in things, seeking out distinctions in order to identify. Divergent thinking it appears to me, tends to be more systematical than intuitive. In most cognitive processing of course, convergent and divergent thinking are working hand in hand to equip, inform, and validate eachother. In scientific terms, we could say the divergent process separates the given set of data so that the convergent process can under-stand or regroup it together, and the convergent process accumulates the relevant set of data for the divergent process to dissect and categorize. In metaphorical terms, we could say the convergent process joins together the seed of knowledge with the womb of the will, and the divergent process delivers the infant of specificity from the generality of its gestation. Like ECS and NSI, divergent and convergent thinking operate in the natural and healthy mind at least as reciprocally as the two legs of the same pedestrian.  

It seems to me that a New Sensory Input saliency dominance, as the more receptive limb on the pedestrian of consciousness, correlates to a tendency for convergent thinking, while a saliency dominance of the more definitional leg, Existing Cognitive Structure correlates to a tendency for divergent thinking. The right-brain, NSI-sensitive aspect of consciousness is always paying attention to and making salient what the agent does not know yet. That which is not known yet, is still in need of being brought together, of being under-stood, of being synthesized into what is understood. The left-brain, ECS-sensitive aspect of consciousness is always paying attention to and making salient what the agent already knows. That which is already known, is contained, or brought together already into a solid point which can be used to differentiate and decode what is not yet understood. While there are certainly any number of ways that divergent thinking also depends upon NSI and convergent thinking depends upon ECS, the primary association does seem to me to be the one outlined above.  

The significance of divergent thinking versus convergent thinking can be seen I think in the difference between the Scientist and the Mystic. The Scientist’s business is examining all the ways a thing can be taken apart, so that they can be arranged back together again differently to achieve a different sort of thing.  Ana-lysis is a powerful mode of thought, and it produces powerful consequences. It is the dynamo that powers taking dominion over the earth and subduing it. Separating the world into its components is the whole business of chemistry allowing computing, modern medicine, space travel, and house paint. The Scientist, wonderfully impressed by the results made possible by dis-integrating things like atoms and cadavers into their components gets the sense that dis-integration of unities is really the key that unlocks the Universe, and disintegrates the motivational perception from observational outcome, the subjective from the objective, the value from the fact, the Creator from the Creation. The results have been very convincing. 

The mystic, on the other hand, is wonderfully impressed by a sense that all things fit together somehow, even if in some way not clearly seen yet. And so he makes it his business to look for the connections between things. He need not even be able to articulate the connections between some things which he knows nevertheless are connected, and so he is not bothered at all about paradoxes, but instead seems to have an attitude and attention toward them much like a close friend might have to the couple most folks don’t know are dating yet. The mystic sees echoes of the most real things everywhere. He is likely to see symbols nested inside symbols, stories nested inside stories, metaphors nested inside metaphors. He may begin to love metaphor supremely. He may begin to suspect that metaphor is the only type of meaning there is. All particularity may fall aside, and metaphor may be the only thing visible, the great mirror of meaning itself carrying over, transferring the content of one thing to form from within content of another. Things are likely to fuse together in the mystics head, though when they do, we quit calling him a mystic, and quietly shut him away with cocktail of drugs designed to prevent certain parts of his brain from coming together like they once did.

The individual scientist or mystic may of course be balanced as any of the rest of us, but taken to the extreme of their types they run (hop?) the risk of becoming monopedal, the transportational configuration by far the most prone to jumping to conclusions. There do seem to be very practical reasons though why it is preferrable to be the Mystic rather than the Scientist, though these consist mainly with the fact that the mystics have not been responsible for poking holes in the ozone layer, 50 Billion Metric tons of carbon displaced from the earth’s mantle to atmosphere annually, or distributing micro-plastics in our lungs, pharmaceuticals in our drinking water, and roundup in our seahorses. Neither have the mystics I’ve met or read about been very prone to inventing hydrogen bombs, robot tazer dogs and biological warfare. There also seems to be a grammatical preference allotted to the mystic over the scientist, if we are to constrain the types to those terms. The Scientist is marked with that suffix by which we mark monomanias, seeing the tribe as healthy, but the tribalist ill, seeing rationality as something fine and strong, but the rationalist as either straight-jacketed or arthritic. The Mystic though resolves in an altogether dispersive, expansive, impersonal graphical conclusion, more attributive than totalizing.

Are there healthy and beneficial instantiations of divergent or convergent predominancy? Absolutely, all over the place, pretty nearly all the time. Can you easily get beneath, under-stand, turn over and separate faulty, or falsely joined ideas? Congratulations, you’re a divergent thinker. Do you readily appreciate and revel in the echoes of purpose in all true things you see? Do you easily find translation for all the ill-formed, yet authentic utterances of the beautiful, fragmented, lost and desiring souls you hear? Congratulations, you’re a convergent thinker.

The best sort of scientist goes about in a very apprenticeship of God, serving not only humankind, but also the the other beasts with all sorts of wonderful creations. The best sort of mystic, goes about in a very apprenticeship of Christ, bringing all the best and most real things together into an accordance within himself. Celebrate the movement of each type as you encounter it, in yourself and in those you know and love well. Celebrate each instantiation of convergence or divergence, that informs, enables, upholds the other, and allows the swinging step of the two together to deepen, to perpetuate.  

Consciousness as Mutually Formative Feedback Between New Sensory Input and Existing Neurological Structure.

Consciousness emerges from a relationship between new sensory stimulation received within the moment, and neural structure carried across time. To use the example of language, patterns of rhythm, pitch, and tone get encoded in an infant’s neural networks, and when repetitions of those patterns are created in the perceptible world, reference can be made to those existing neurological patterns, along with the network of memories, feelings, and experiences associated with them. Along the complete process of visual perception, from the optic nerve on back, there is as much or more information being impressed on the process from the rest of the brain as is in-coming from the retina and lens. The derivative theory is that awareness is a co-creation, between perception and existing cognitive formations.

After thinking about this for two days straight, the theory sounds almost like a truism, which in a way comforts me as a sign of its intuitive accuracy, and worries me that since it has been taken up into my Existing Cognitive Structure, the theory may be done yielding fresh insights to me, as it did when I entertained it more through my New Sensory Input system than my ECS system. NSI and ECS are terms I’ve come up with the work with these two concepts. I don’t see any problems with ECS at this time, but do find NSI a little unsatisfactory, since new stimulation in-taken to the process of conception need not directly come from the five senses, though it must have originated through the senses at some point. Along with directly through one of the five senses, NSI could also be imported through the intuition, imagination, memory, or consist as a particular existing cognitive structure under recall. For the purposes of this essay, please bring this understanding into your definition of NSI, and comment below if a better term arises for you in the integration of the NSI of this blog post and the ESC of your intelligence and experience.

The metaphor may be somewhat loose, but you could think of the new sensory input, and existing cognitive structures as being ideal conversational partners, instantly aware of the others content, constantly expressive of feedback, and consistently receptive of formation from the others feedback. This of course, is a description of the consciousness with a proper balance between new sensory input (NSI) and existing cognitive structures (ECS). While you certainly want as much ECS as possible in order to appropriately assimilate as much NSI as possible, the danger of imbalance seems to be weighted more towards ECS running rampant than NSI running rampant for most of us humans most of the time. Since for any given individual the things that we know are a smaller group than the things we don’t know, it seems important that the processes devoted to assimilating NSI into ECS never be displaced by the systems imposing ECS upon NSI.

However, as we age, we increasingly implement those existing cognitive structures that have worked for us well enough in the past, and avoid the difficulty adapting the ones we have, or developing new ones. As and when the cognitive structures (think implicit mental habits) we have in place become inadequate to assimilate New Sensory Input (think behaviors of others we are unfamiliar with) it can be easier to deem unimportant the NSI than to try out new cognitive structures. The pitfall in this, is that its very easy for ECS/NSI relationship to stop reading or even being aware of a stimulus or potential stimulus once it is deemed unimportant. There is a point in our lives when NSI has near total domination in the relationship, and that is in infancy. As a toddlers, and in intense periods of transformation and insight, NSI and ECS are bounding forward together, each opening up new space for the other to increase in its saliency. Perhaps this is what Christ meant when he said “Except you become as little children you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Given the tendency for ECS to eclipse NSI in a well-formed adult who has become overly identified with any religio-cultural-political worldview, Christ may be suggesting a return to the state of consciousnesses where ECS and NSI are capable of mutually forming, influencing, and enabling eachother.

As I pointed out earlier, what I’ve been calling NSI doesn’t need to be data taken in directly from the five senses, but can be whatever stimulation the locus of attention takes as its conversational partner. Thus, reflection is capable of taking sensory input received in the past (think memory, image, word, symbol, sentence), and reproducing it as a certain neural network reminiscent of new sensory data in that it is plastic, no longer totally defined but once again fertile, particularly enabled to change or bringing about change, and hold that “live,” once again malleable neural network in conversation with other more rigidly defined existing cognitive structures. A picture of this may be found in God’s separation of the sea from the dry land in Genesis. Symbolic duos filter up and appear on every hand. The active and the definitional, plasticity and rigidity, chaos and order, time and space, energy and matter, Dionysus and Apollo, even the verb and noun with which we speak. The mathematicians tell us time and space are actually one. The physicists tell us that energy and matter are variations of the same thing. It is their very separation that allows physical existence to occur. Perhaps we could understand the whole of all human experience in terms of separation and unification. Separating what was unified, and unifying what was separate. It is the separation of what is really one (analysis), that allows us to take power over the world, and it is the unification of what are really two (synthesis) that allows us to serve the world by being creative within it. Neurobiologically, it appears that the separation into two halves in the brain serves two distinct functions so that the left hemisphere specializes in maintaining ECS, and the right hemisphere specializes in allowing NSI, with the corpus collosum going between, mediating the two, and joining the work of each by doing as much to block the neural firings of the one hemisphere from reaching the other, as it does to connect them together. It is as important for cognition that NSI be kept separate from ECS as it is for them to come together.

All biological organism are represented on the raw, organic food chain as both resources and resource takers. Interestingly, all the organisms at the top of digestion hierarchies, have hemispheric brains. One consequence to this hemispheric separation, seems to be the dedication of left hemisphere to processes that enable easy identification of resources (Catch grasshopper, eat grasshopper.), and the dedication of the right one processes that allows a constant pan-awareness to the category of things which have not been identified yet, which includes predators, and the emotional states and intentions of those you’re cooperating with (Is Karen this morning, predator or collaborator?). The typical evolutionary-cognitive understanding of the well developed right hemisphere has been predator awareness, but attentiveness to feelings, experiences, and interiority of others so highly developed in humans for me has as much or more explanatory power. Thus, empathy, or attentiveness to the interiority of others is one of the best things you can do to prevent your NSI saliency from being obliterated by ECS over-activity and identification. Who knew? Curiosity and compassion may actually keep you from becoming set in your ways.

An understanding of the feedback loop between NSI and ECS may explain why consciousness changes so dramatically when you’re asleep, because the saliency of new sensory input is drastically reduced in comparison to existing cognitive structure. Perhaps dreaming is the emergent phenomena of your neural networks beginning to talk primarily to eachother rather than talking primarily with the sensory data which is so salient to the waking mind. This may account for the muddled aspect of most dreaming. In the waking mind, the awareness of new sensory input (NSI) is usually focused to certain nexus of stimuli. This relatively clarified set of stimuli forms a distinct locus of attention for the existing cognitive structures (ECS) to interface with. In most dreaming, the terms of reference or “conversational partners” are less limited or less defined than the set of NSI deemed as salient by the waking mind. The muddled “anything could happen” nature of dreaming then may be the result of many neural networks communicating with eachother at once so that each voice is registered at a lower resolution than the more clearly separated and defined voices of perception and cognition. Further, this theory could account for why some dreams, especially dreams which resolve in some way a problem from your waking life, are more lucid or more real than other dreams. If you face a certain problem, say a tricky relationship with a sibling or needing to know whether or not to enter into a certain relationship, than insofar as that problem is conscious, the problem takes the form of a question in your mind, which can form one distinct conversational partner able to interface the rest of your neural networks after having already limited the terms of the conversation. Filtered in this way the conversation of the neural networks loses clutter, gains clarity, and moves closer to a meaningful relationship to the aspects of ones waking life.

Mind altering drugs, along with their other possible effects, alter the mind precisely by changing the ratio of saliency between new sensory input and existing cognitive structure. It seems that this is exactly the mechanism by which adderal effects the mind, improving the saliency of new sensory input and lowering the exigency of existing cognitive structures in some minds, while improving the saliency of existing cognitive structures and lowering the exigency of new sensory input in others. Stimulants may tend improve the salience of both NSI and ECS, and depressants may tend reduce the salience of both, while both stimulants and depressants may reduce or improve NSI and ECS at different rates, which could account for why drugs like marijuana operate as a stimulant to some minds, and a depressant for others. For example, marijuana may increase the relevance of NSI dramatically in X’s mind, while increasing ECS only marginally, or it may marginally increase the relevance of NSI in Y’s mind while dramatically decreasing ECS, or result in an other of the four possible combinations in the mind of Z.

In a focused state of mind, the ratio of existing cognitive structure to new sensory input is very large, where many existing cognitive patterns are exerted on a narrow range of sensory input. In an orgiastic state of mind the opposite is the case, with a very large ratio of sensory input being in communication with a very narrow range of cognitive structures. In an ecstatic state of mind the range of cognitive structure may be wider than in the orgiastic, but the ratio between new sensory input and existing cognitive structure is much higher, so that we may say along with the etymology of ecstasy that in ecstasy, the gravitational center of awareness is not in the mind at all, but located instead in the overwhelming range of stimulation. In a tired, disengaged, or apathetic state of mind, of course, a narrow range of sensory input is in relation to a narrow range of cognitive structures.

It should be apparent that neither NSI or ECS is to preferred to the other, nor necessarily a higher ratio of the one to be preferred to the other except as case by case in particular situations. The desired configuration is of course the highest saliency of each that can be maintained together in working relationship with one another. When the relevance of NSI and ECS are in such a relationship with one another that the dynamical system between the two is capable of increasing the salience of each, the mind enters a process sometimes called the flow state, which can be deeply peaceful, meaningful, and fulfilling. Where have you experienced the deepest states NSI and ECS integration, mutual in-formation, and co-creativity? Let me know in the comments below.

It should also be clear the pure ECS or pure NSI is impossible without the other, and that across all the phenomena discussed, the two should be understood to relate to eachother on a multitude of spectra. What I’m perhaps most interested in though, is the way that differences in NSI to ECS ratios may map onto other socially or cognitively recognizable groups. How do you think NSI and ECS saliencies map onto liberals and conservatives, introverts and extroverts, scientists and mystics, poets and critics, divergent thinkers and convergent thinkers?

To Be Convicted

We learn early that the inverse of love is pain, and an increased capacity for the one brings along with it an increased capacity for the other. The risk of love is increased vulnerability to loss, the increased territory of absence that must replace that love if it should leave. And the promise of life is this: that all things must eventually leave. Everything we love will be taken from us, either by time or by death. This is the tragedy of our lives, and the beauty is that again and again, age upon age, generation upon generation, we conclude that love anyway is worth the risk, worth the increased territory of absence that must come with its loss.

We accept love of course, knowing of this coming absence, but also knowing that before there is absence there must be a presence to make that absence possible. The reward of love is the time that passes before it is taken. We understand this, and know the risk is worthy of the reward. We accept love, knowing of its absence, believing in its presence. And so we experience its reward, moment by moment, unfolding in the time before it is lost.

Four years ago, when considering a relationship with the woman of my ideal, I had to recon with the possibility of losing her, and had to agree within myself that it would be worth loving and losing her, even if I knew the outcome were to be loss. In my soul, I concluded the worth was there. Though I couldn’t know the near-term outcome, I understood that in loving her I was submitting to the ultimate loss of that love, whether through death or through time. What I did not understand then, but should be obvious to anyone who has loved, is that in choosing to love her, I was submitting also to the loss of my ideal.

According to Carl Jung, when you posit an ideal, you’re also specifying a Judge. The Judge is higher than the ideal, and determines what meets the ideal and what does not. The Judge is outside of you, but also speaks within you. And it is higher also than you in so far as it determines whether or not you measure up to the ideal. This relationship between the Judge and the ideal should be self-evident, as long as you can accept as real, realities which exist independently from the concrete.

Of course, in loving the particular person whom I loved, my ideal for her was lost. Yet when love remains love, the loss of an ideal is not its loss, but its transformation. No human is the ideal we have for them, but each human is an Ideal higher than we could posit: an Ideal unto themselves, in their individual, infinite worth. Love, when it is Love, must see this Ideal, for it is in the nature of Love to see in another what is most truly there. The seed of love is always an ideal, Love’s germination is the dismantling of that ideal, and the sprout of Love, is seeing the glory of the Ideal which is truly there.

If with each ideal, there is a specification of a Judge, how much greater must be the Judge of the second Ideal than the first? And the Judge of each Ideal, judges not only that Ideal, but also all those who would come into relationship with it. Thus the infinite obligation that Kierkegaard saw Love placing upon us when it gives us its eyes to see.

I thought that by coming into relationship with the ideal I first saw, I could live out the ideal I had for myself. As I lost that first ideal, it could no longer provide me with the inspiration to obtain the ideal I had for myself. But seed became sprout, and still I thought that in becoming worthy of the true Ideal which I saw, I would be forced to enact the Ideal within myself. I bore little relationship though to the Ideal within myself. What could my relationship then be to its Judge?

Not in touch with the Ideal within myself, and so in tenuous relationship with its Judge, I was brought down by the real of myself in contact with the real of my beloved, and so, before the Judge, failed to come into relationship rightly with the second Ideal, the glory of her who was really there.

In Every Riven Thing, Christian Wiman writes,

To love is to feel your death

given to you like a sentence,

to meet the judge’s eyes,

as if there were a judge,

as if he had eyes,

and love.

When loving a human, and when your love has deteriorated, evolved, and sprouted past your misconceptions of who you’d like them to be, and seen who in their glory they are, you’ve come irrevocably into the jurisdiction of that glory’s Judge. That glory’s Glory. That glory’s Creator, Sustainer, and original Lover. But to love a human is to love as a human, imperfectly, inadequately, inconsistently, temperamentally. And to love a human is therefore to come under sentence of that Judge, and be convicted. Only in conviction of the Judge, and justification before him, however undeserving and however still-becoming that justification is, can Love be perfected, and completed, and bare its most precious fruit.

It is not Love that blinds us, but our separation from our own Ideal, and consequent inability to face its Judge. It is Love that allows us to see, that opens up within itself an infinite obligation. It is Love that brings us before the Judge, it is Love that convicts us, and Love that allows us to fulfill its sentence.

Only in facing the Judge, as if he had eyes, as if he had a face, will we be able to keep from un-facing our beloved. Only in relationship to him will we be able to live up to our own Ideal, or deserve the Ideal of our beloved. Only in relationship to him will we be able to fulfill our obligation to Love. Only before the Judge will we be able to deserve or live up to our relationship to the beloved.


Since I had never taught or taken an AP class before, I went on College Central’s website to figure out what it takes to make an AP world literature class different from the world literature class I would teach if you set me loose in the classroom with no knowledge of standardized expectations and testing. I assumed I’d find a dry list of required skills and a stuffy map of expected areas of knowledge, but surprisingly, the article provided on “The art of Teaching AP English Literature,” by Ellen Greenblatt, sounded like the author had actually had fun writing it. It was as entertaining as it was useful. First, Greenblatt warned me that I would be working with students who “alternate, often in a flash, between the highest levels of sophistication and the deepest abysses of ignorance.” The realism of this insight was at the same time strangely comforting and strangely reminiscent of the protagonist of the first text I was teaching in AP World Literature, Oedipus Rex.

Oedipus goes back and forth between having the clearest understanding of human nature and completely missing the significance of the stories told surrounding the death of Laius. He fails to recognize his guilt and presence in the story, until the end of the play when it is all spelled out for him by an old shepherd under torture. Throughout the play, Oedipus is championed as a hero to the people of Thebes, for he saved them once from the terror of the Sphinx, and they are certain he can save them again from the uncanny plague that is ravaging the city. The Sphinx’s riddle may seem simple enough for those of us who have known it now for going on three thousand years, but I doubt the winnowing of the oral tradition that preceded Sophocles would have preserved it if it was really as simple as it sometimes seems today. Most of us have known the answer since about the time we were transitioning to two legs from four. I for one, knew the riddle long before I knew anything about the Greeks.

The story I was told went something like this. Once there was an evil woman who lived high on a lonely mountain pass who would ask travelers that passed along the road a riddle and then cast spells on them when they couldn’t answer. She would give them three tries before casting a spell that would make them forget their name, where they were going, and where they came from. They would wander around in the mountains, lost, and wailing because they knew nothing about themselves, and eventually die of thirst, starvation, or exposure. One day, a wise man passed along the mountain path, and the witch came down from her hut above the road, and stood in his way, and told him that if he couldn’t answer her riddle, he would be doomed to wander the mountains, forgetting his name, where he was going, and where he came from until his death. The riddle she asked him was this: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and goes by three legs in the evening?” The wise man thought, and thought, and the witch became impatient. Just as she drew from her clothes the crooked stick with which she cast her spells, the wise man answered, “It is man, who crawls on four legs when he is a baby, walks on two legs when he is grown, and leans on a walking stick when he is aged.” Upon hearing the right answer to her riddle, the witch shrieked frightfully, and imploded in a cloud of dust on the trail.

In the Greek mythology, the Riddler was a Sphinx, and the answerer Oedipus. The Sphinx terrorized Thebes, eating whomever she chose that came in and out of the city and couldn’t answer her riddle. When Oedipus arrives at Thebes, he is able to answer the question, and the Sphinx loses her power, and falls, shrieking her death wail, into the ravine below the city. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus or his followers assert several times that he did not answer the riddle by “consulting the birds,” or by magic, but by his own intellect and reasoning. And yet I doubt that Oedipus answered the riddle simply because he was smarter than all the other good Greeks who died trying to do so. I think riddles are more often answered in flashes of something like intuition than they are through logical deduction. I think that Oedipus thought about the world and his own life differently than the Thebans did. I think he had different assumptions about time and personhood. He somehow recognized continuity of self through time in ways that perhaps the civilizations of Greeks that preceded their mythology did not. Perhaps it was his knowledge of the prophecies about him that allowed him to see his future as concretely and intimately a part of him as his present. Perhaps it was his uncertainty about his parentage that made his past as relevant and demanding attention as his present. Perhaps it was the way the prophecies yoked the certainty of his destiny to the uncertainty of his origin that formed his mind to see the past, present, and future selves as one essential whole, rather than leaving him free to carry himself through life with an awareness marooned in the present.

Is the one, after all, who walks in the morning, afternoon, and evening the same person? Without our understanding of the soul, would we be able to say so? Does your childhood self exist? Does your stooped, aged, future self exist? If we were strict materialists, we would have to say no, with the exception of our eye lenses. (What is it that’s the window to the soul again?) Even our tooth enamel gets replaced after we’ve learned to walk, and may well fall out before we hit the grave. The concept of the soul, though, opens the possibility of our past and future selves being one. When did the concept of the soul develop? Has it been thus forever? What is it in us that is essential? What is it that lasts?

Somehow Oedipus understands it is the same person throughout, and in a flash of insight, knows that the animal changing its gait in the morning, afternoon, and evening must be a very different animal from the ones that spend their whole day on four legs.

And yet despite everything that Oedipus sees, despite whatever reason, insight, or intuition it was that allowed him to answer the Sphinx and rule the city wisely, he is blind. He doesn’t know who he is, where he has come from, who he has married, or who he has killed. It is not knowing that he is from Thebes and of its royal blood that has allowed him to kill his father and marry his mother, the very fates he left his childhood home and family to avoid doing. The play is a dramatic illustration of the way you can never be sure of yourself or what you’re doing, if you don’t know where you are from. If you don’t know who you are, you’re in position to make some serious mistakes, or worse, be inclined to not act at all.

In a cultural sense the consequences of this not-knowing are true, and in the cosmic also. How do you know where you come from? Is it possible? Who of us does? Part of the reason why twenty-five hundred years later the play still disturbs us is that beneath all our cultural, historical, and socio-political identity markers, we still don’t know who we are. The fact is, that in the richest tradition, and in the oldest family with the best kept pedigree, if we think about it too long we have no idea where we came from. What happened in that great web of the Universe, the tapestry of Fate, and the impenetrable will of God that resulted in our consciousness being sown here, in this furrow of time and space?

Is answering where we come from, though, the most important question? Answering the question prematurely, or avoiding the question in favor of an answer that does not go all the way to the soul, is a way of losing our soul to the spirits, markets, fates, and forces that would operate upon us. If we are to learn where we come from, it will be a revelation that develops. A process that is unfolded across life through a relationship with life and with ourselves that is open to grace. I think the best description of the life I’m thinking of is in Henry Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands, a book on prayer, which by teaching us how to pray teaches us how to live. The life lived with open hands accepts that which is, and that which may yet be, and that which may be already, but which we cannot already see. This is a life of thankfulness and receptivity, turning continually toward the One who speaks, looking upward to the One who calls. Only through a surrender to grace will we ever be able to look back and understand our past as a coherent unity. Where we come from will ultimately be clarified only by grace. Only through grace will we know who we are.

This post was originally written for and published on the Curator.

November Three, Two Thousand and Twenty

I woke up this morning to the whistling of the wind.

The corners of the house were teeth in the mouth of November,

and whistling around them was the world spinning

like a dynamo, when I got up this morning.

When I got up this morning, the wind gashed

long tracks across the valley, and in the darkness

before dawn it undid many a plastic icon.


Somewhere the proud boys are making buttermilk pancakes

this morning. Somewhere a lonely antifascist is eating his

avocadoes and toast. Somewhere a retired plumber,

who has placed his hope in maga and a 401k, fries himself

an egg for breakfast. Somewhere a democratic-socialist

with student debt and a degree in nursing does the same.

Somewhere an ecologist worries over his coffee. Somewhere

a militia member boils his, a different set of anxieties brewing

in the same regions of his brain. Both had trouble sleeping

last night; neither have yet been through a midlife crisis.


A great wind is coming through the valley, the sky is tumbling

down upon the earth, in great blocks of light, rebounding off

the ridges, and running down the hills, submerging the grass,

the grass and leaves that run for cover. As for myself,

I am driving. Feeling the weight of the car in the wheel against

my hands as I accelerate around the corners. The blacktop is

bright this morning with what the sky spat out last night,

the road is a torrent of leaves, and I am a mercury juggernaut.

The leaves rejoice in my wheeling, and I make them my train,

a flinging of wings in my wake, the ones that fall down,

and the ones that rise up to meet me.


The sinuous wind digs its fingers between the panels of steel,

and pulls my car forward or yanks it to the left or right.

The wind is a wild banquet, a blanket of heedlessness,

a ubiquitous turning, and no man knows where it comes

from, or where it is going. This wind this morning has every

direction, it takes them all, and none take it.


I rejoiced this morning when I went to see the man of God.

My heart laid low, but my body thundered, when the wind

knocked the caps off the ridges, and the grass went streaming

away beneath the light, and the sky came spilling down onto

the meadows. My tires sang as I did, when I went to meet

the prophet, while plastic apparitions took on life and fled

the yards of their origin. The giant inflatable ghosts

and pumpkins went soaring off like air balloons, crazily climbing

and eclipsing eachother, or singeing their circumferences

on power lines and falling to wrap their flabby lengths round

trees for safety. Loose limbed skeletons, rattled like maracas,

and campaign yard signs lept from their moorings and

went whistling through the air like corrugated plastic guillotines,

or the ashes of discarded ballots. I swerved to miss a garbage can

come barreling across the middle line, unhinged, and hungover,

vomiting its contents on the road. A telephone pole leaned stricken,

its wires sagging toward the standing seams of the roof beneath it.

Trees cast off their branches, porch swings disowned their cushions,

and the fabric of sun-bleached flags, on every pole was ripping.


There was a forge in the heart of the man of God. And a fire

in his front room. His voice was his own, and his words were

another’s, two halves of a bellows they were to my heart.


We are all sheep, lead astray, and every man has

Turned into a yard sign.  

We use the truth, and our own apprehensions of it,

To beat one another upon the head. What I have seen,

You must see also, and I have no imagination to consider

What you may not have learned. But who is our teacher?

And where is the spirit in our learning? Where is the spirit of our becoming?

My counselors, my baptizers, the founders of my faith and my awakening

Are trading in the bread of puppets and monarchs, and making

The pearl of parables a plaything. The flags of nations and empires

Are equally sun-bleached, equally rending before the wind of His becoming

Polkinghorne, come out from among them, and prophesy this also.

Is the kingdom of God an accelerant, a caffeine shot, a stepping stone,

a building block, a moral guide post, a guiding principle to the dream

of America?


Follow no man further than he follows God. We all pray

in our own way. Don’t tell me you don’t pray, just say

why you don’t more often. We all pray in our own way

Some with weakness, some with hollowness, some with

fullness, some with caviling, and some with desire. The man

of God knows it is not prayer that saves us, but surrender.

Can we agree this hole has no bottom? Can we agree to act with

Our conscience, and demand no man does the same? Can we agree

We have been trained by the institutions of acquisition, and can we

Become students instead to the mysteries of his love and his will for us?

No man knows the way of the wind. It takes everyway, none take it.


Even the bricks wave at me this morning. Even the dust mites

spark light that’s brighter than their own. For beneath the tiniest

quarks there is bottomless chaos. The burden of becoming

touches all, and form is brought up by desire form disorder.

I will admit that in our bandwidth, greed and hate get the most

airtime, but still maintain that beneath everything, it’s love

that structures all existence out of pure potential. There was

a forge in the heart of the man of God. And a fire in his front room.

His voice was his own, and his words another’s,

two halves of a bellows they were to my heart.

Even the bricks wave at me this morning. Even the dust mites

spark a light that’s brighter than their own.


I will open my home to the wind this week. Pull down

my blinds and windows, and let it sift my living room,

find its way to my bed, and carry me off to sleep, or wake

me in the morning. For it has found its way somehow

into my lungs and blood already.

Spring Break Just Short of Moscow


This is about a journey to the East.

While half of Bluffton University went to do beach type things in Florida, a quarter responsibly went back into the work force, and the remaining quarter studiously hunkered down in their dorms to work on semester projects, Ermais Assefa and I drove lazily East. Ultimately, we made it out of Ohio, across Pennsylvania, past New Jersey, through a yard, across some rocks, and around a few fences to the waves of the Atlantic in Sheepshead Bay, New York, New York.  

From the beginning there was only one real plan in mind: escaping Bluffton. The destinations were all just stops along the way. For various reasons we stopped off in Columbus, Lisbon, Pittsburg, Juniata County, and NYC, performing the essential tasks of sleeping, eating, and reading at every stop along the way.  In Columbus we took in a birthday party, in Lisbon a church service, in Pittsburg three hams, in Juniata County the lay of the land, in New Jersey a couple of bottles of wine, and in NYC the incredible company of some wonderful old friends of mine, Kenneth and Charis. Kenneth and Charis moved to Sheepshead Bay a couple of years ago, and in the meantime their daughter Kayra grew up to be a delightfully intelligent and genial three-year-old, practically wise and sympathetic enough to open a practice in counseling.  

Though we feasted on a Mennonite potluck dinner in Lisbon, enjoined my mom’s cooking in Juniata, and dined sumptuously on dumpster food along the way, our culinary experience culminated at the Jordan Center for Advanced Russian Studies at New York University. Lured there by a lecture on 2nd world Soviet influence on 3rd world literature and cinema in 20th century, we unwittingly fell prey to a banquet of the finest Russian cuisine.  

We found the event online, and simply walked in, very confidently so as not to draw attention to ourselves, and looking nearly as eager as we felt for knowledge on Soviet political clout in the world of 3rd world literature. We found seats in the back just as the lecture began, and tried very diligently to appear as if we belonged. 

The lecturer with a pronounced little mustache and a larger, less-pronounceable name spoke very softly and soothingly from his seat behind a table in the front of the room for an hour or two about writers who had larger mustaches and less pronounceable names than he did. In the back row, I promptly fell asleep, all the while sitting bolt upright and nodding and smiling appreciatively—all useful skills I had sharpened throughout the semester pretending not to sleep in the front row of Dr. Myer’s post-lunch astronomy class. Between the dreams, continents, decades, and empires, every now and then I could see Ermais beside me, also nodding and smiling appreciatively, though judging from the questions he asked in the Q & A time, I’m guessing he was actually awake 

My alert subconsciousness sensed immediately when the lecturer gave his concluding comments, and I joined in heartily with the applause. There followed a round of questions and answers in which Ermais took an erudite part, and after a department chair got up and thanked us all for coming, Ermais and I stood up and determined to make a quick and innocent exit, but alas, the Russians were too fast for us. No sooner had we collected our bags, and fended off the would-be conversationalists around us, than the departmental lackies had already begun piling up tea cakes and Narzan and Borjomi Russian sparkling waters by the door. I made honest effort to grab only a single Borjomi and escape, but just as I was about to dodge a sudden of rush of cold meats and cheeses coming at me through the door, I looked behind me and saw Ermais succumb to a golden swarm of giant Russian teacakes.

I knew I couldn’t leave my brother in this situation alone.  

It was a wild time, and I gave myself to it fully. The things just kept appearing. By the time the Bolsheviks, hollow eyed grad students and I had seriously depleted the caviar reservoirs and were bearing down on the smoked herring, somebody even brought out plates and napkins. There were bread baskets of tea cakes, passles of pastries that nobody but a Russian scholar would have names for, smoked salmon, whitefish, herring, oodles of pickled vegetables, stuffed tomatoes, and vat of caviar on top a mound of cold crepes. There were all manner of dried figs and fruits, sparkling Russian wines, and bottles of vodka that looked expensive enough to exact the combined salaries of several oligarchs.  

It may be, that when the histories are examined closely, it will be seen that I lead the charge upon that gastronomic apex of Russian civilization. But I also signaled the retreat when they began shoving the pickled and smoked and sweet things aside to make room for the entrees, and I did not stick around to finish off the survivors.  

In This Life of Celebration

I recognize a dramatic need in my life to live with celebration. There’s a story I love of the Simple Way Collective receiving a gift of 20,000 dollars near the beginning of their existence as a community. Using the money themselves would have appealed to their self-interest, but instead they sent 10,000 to a hundred different Charities, and took the second 10,000 dollars and dropped them from balconies above Wallstreet and watched the brokers, bankers, and homebums go equally mad, scrabbling for money for once on an equal playing field. Before dropping the money, Sister Margaret of the Simple Way blew a shofar, and Shane Claiborne shouted out:

“Some of us have worked on Wall Street, and some of us have slept on Wall street. We are a community of struggle. Some of us are rich people trying to escape our loneliness. Some of us are poor folks trying to escape the cold. Some of us are addicted to drugs and others are addicted to money. We are a broken people who need eachother and God, for we have come to recognize the mess that we created of our world and how deeply we suffer from the mess. Now we are working to give birth to a new society within the shell of the old. Another world is possible. Another world is necessary. Another world is already here.”

Granted, if I fell into money I wouldn’t spend it like that, but I still love the idea. Yes, life is serious and we have obligations and responsibilities, but we also, as Gilbert Chesterton observed, “go into a room and stuff foreign objects into a hole in [our] head.” And what’s serious, ordinary, or to be expected about that? Sure, we do it all the time, but that doesn’t take away the strangeness of it. The world is a strange place, and we damn well better not come to the ends of our lives without having enjoyed something of them. As Ray Bradbury notes “Certainly we are ridiculous little animals wallowing in the fudge bowl, and God must love us all the more because we appeal to his humor.” Somehow though we’ve got to get the mindset of festivity, which I’m not sure how one does; I’m just certain that it’s not something one can order from amazon. We need to get out of our heads that consuming things will make us happy, and get into them that time spent creatively and intimately with people we know and like well will. I’m convinced there is every bit as much fun to be had wallowing around in muddy pond and building a gigantic brush fire in November as there is to be had spending the night gaming or buying shoes online.

Tom Sine writes, “We need to discover that God calls us to an image of the good life and better future that isn’t only simpler but also much more festive than anything the consumer mall can offer. What would our lives look like if we intentionally lived into the imagery of the new world breaking into this one?” Not only simpler but also much more festive? I’m here for that. I wanna meet the Christians who can actually celebrate well. Who can cut loose and party in a way that the morbid fraternity mooks dutifully pouring miller lites down their throats never heard of. Matthew Fox writes about justice as celebration. Celebrating the justice of the Lord, that is, and is about to come. Christians should be the happiest and freest people on earth. Down with cultural cults, with state religions, with worship of gentility, propriety, and respectability. Somebody, let’s go to the hard work of changing eleven water storage pots into wine, shall we?

Adding to, expanding, and backdropping the wedding at Cana, the Jubilee, the ridiculous absurdity of all our kingdoms which the babe in the manger subverts, is the call to deny yourself and go die. Yes, this is the call, and the answer is also celebration. If living is a beautiful absurdity that we should give ourselves to fully, isn’t dying as well? So many of the martyrs died singing, scorning the formality of death, beyond ecstasy and pain already, already partaking in Gloria. Laying down your life across your life though, not even in the flash in the pan of death, can also be a celebration. “Except a seed fall into the earth and die, it abideth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” I think there is a joy in the rotting, the germination, the chemical transitions of the seed that has been sacrificed to the promise of harvest, and fallen into life, into the soil. We are given a Joy in giving, and receiving, the blessed sacredness of life, partaking, sharing, in the wild mystery, of being an animal and a spirit, merged together, living out a series of  moments, in this our spectacular universe of celebration.

Attention and the Way of the Heart

The hurts in our world are not from lack of theory, but from lack of caring. Too few have seen healing, seen the potential for growth possible in spiritually mature human beings, seen the beauty, tenderness, and paradox of unconditional love. Masters of the human mind, virtuosos of the heart, savants of the psyche have been writing for generations, on the clarity, poise, and wonder of the human consciousness positioned within reality. The medieval mystics opened up for us by example and testimony, the incredible human capacities for interiority and ecstasy. The Christian existentialists in blazing prose demanded that we reckon with the drama of created, individual will and action. The psychologists have taught us to reflect upon consciousness itself, to love healing, process, and dialog. The twentieth century mystics, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, have repeated for us, everything that materialism and modernity would have us forget.  

Spending careful time with any of these authors has the capacity to change your life. But don’t come for information, for a fix, for a solution. Come to spend time well. Select a time in which you will have no other engagements. A free evening, when you don’t need to think about a test or meeting the next day, when you don’t have to worry about the next assignment you have, when you won’t need to check your phone, and when you can be completely comfortable with being alone. For me at Bluffton, the best times for this are Friday evenings. I have no class the next day, I have the freedom to stay up an extra hour, I can fulfill my obligations sometime else, and there’s nothing in the world I’m required to give my attention to other than what I choose to place in front of me. When you’ve found and liberated this time, read slowly, discussing with your mind, or with God, or with your notepad, the most profound and compelling ideas you encounter. Read contemplatively, caring about the truth of the words, gently arguing with the text, staying with the syntax of complex sentences until you have unlocked all their meaning. Read in communion with yourself.  

I have said that the hurts of the world come not from lack of theory, but from lack of care. However, the theory, the truth of great authors can teach you how to care, show you the process of caring, its methods, its mercy and its justice. Care is a developed capacity, and it can be learned both in person and at a distance through the words of people who have developed the capacity deeply. Over and over again, authors writing at intersections of spirituality, psychology, and mysticism, have emphasized the importance of human attention. There is a tremendous value, even power, in the human attention, and we assert the value of the things we turn our attentions to. Attention is also a quality that can be developed. Because the human is so complex, involving spirit as well as mind and body, I don’t think there is a maximum amount to the attention that we can pay something. Think of the varying levels of attention that you can pay someone who is in conversation with you. Think about someone attempting to explain to you their deepest spiritual needs, some problem that is too complex, too contradictory, or too paradoxical for you to understand. According to your developed capacities of wisdom, understanding, and interiority, there is an ever-increasing-but-never-arriving amount of attention that you can pay as a listener, like the endzone you’ll never arrive at by eternally decreasing the distance by half.  

How does one increase one’s abilities of paying attention? In May, when I was leading a conversational therapy group with men overcoming addiction at a rehabilitation center in Chicago, my girlfriend Shanell gave me this profound piece advice: “Listen with your soul today.”  

What if we listened to one another with not just our egos or our minds, but with our very souls? In The Recreation of Relationship Elise Boulding writes “Another very important skill which we in the Christian community haven’t given enough attention to is what I call “prophetic listening.” We all know about prophetic speaking, but prophetic listening means listening to others in such a way that we draw out of them the seeds of their own highest understanding, their own obedience, their own vision—seeds that they themselves may not have known were there. Listening can draw out of people things that speaking to them cannot.” Rogerian (or Person-Centered) psychological theory operates from the understanding that every human is capable of reaching the solutions they need for their problems. The Rogerian process of psychoanalysis is an asking of ever-deepening and differentiating questions, which the patient answers with an ever-increasing revelation and understanding to uncover the truth and solutions that are already latent within him.  

This process is of course often difficult or even impossible by oneself, within one’s own interiority, but it can be begun and continued there. We are all aided however, in our process of healing by the attention and questions of others. By paying attention to what is innermost, what is truly beautiful in another we call that beauty valuable, and by noticing it increase its power and presence within reality. Jean Vanier, who spent his life living beside and listening to humans with profound mental and physical disabilities describe in From Exclusion to Inclusion the way of the heart: “Justice flows from the heart…Our basic needs are the same as those of all other human beings. We need other people who will call forth what is most beautiful in us, just as we need to call forth what is most beautiful in others.” 

Give somebody the gift attention today. Practice your abilities of attention by reading difficult books on the human spirit, asking questions of both discernment and positive regard, by listening to draw forth the prophetic, by listening with your soul.  

The Inhumanity of Advertisement

It’s crazy how an opportunity or supply of something when marketed can create demand for it. In Everyday Justice, a book about the impact of overconsumption, Julie Clawson tells the story of how after World War II a huge supply of cotton was left over that had been going for bandages and now had no use. Companies owning this left-over cotton would have lost money, except that some entrepreneur decided to market the cotton to women as disposable hygienic pads, according to Clawson using an argument from class and status rather than from function or utility. The marketing said that a “better-class woman” needed these products, and that using them would elevate someone’s place in society. If a woman wanted to be carefree and modern the advertising line went, they would buy and throw away cotton hygienic pads rather than wash and reuse cloth ones or wear thicker more absorptive underwear. The point is not that disposable pads aren’t ever needed or that they haven’t made women’s lives easier, but that the use of them started with a concern for capital rather than a concern for comfort.

I’m not a women, and I don’t know what the actual functional need for hygienic pads is, whether they should be disposable or reusable, or what other options there are, but I do know that our culture is overly obsessed with sterility and sanitation, and that advertisement is often a way of foisting unneeded items upon consumers in order to extort more profits from them. If someone needs something, they will go out and get it, or invent some solution to fulfill their needs from products they already have. If someone does not need something, and yet a company wants them to buy it anyway, that company will have to pay artists, designers, and social psychologists to construct as convincing and manipulative a message as possible in order to lead the consumer into buying it.

Advertisement is aesthetic violence. It is the science of inciting lust. It is the practice of arousing greed. If a product is not needed for the good of human life, there is nothing beautiful about the most tastefully rendered sales pitch. Unfortunately, such sales pitches are not even beautifully rendered, but instead obnoxious, abrasive, appealing to lust or gluttony, or patently false or sentimental. In the case of streaming platforms, advertisement is not even applied as a service, not even intended to be attractive, but instead is used as a weapon to inflict annoyance and frustration in order to influence purchase of a paid account.

The human soul, and its five senses, the channels transmitting physical reality into it, are noble and holy things, designed by and patterned off the Divine. The soul is fed and shaped by at least two things, the physical world it receives through its senses, and the physical world it interacts with through its responses to what it receives. Jesus said “it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out”, placing the essential importance on our responses to what we encounter in the world, rather than the content of what we encounter itself. However, media and sensory input, does have an effect upon culture and soul both in its presence and its absence. A soul can remain uninterested, aloof and untouched through a four-hour bombardment of audio-visual advertisement, but what if instead during that time, the soul had been taking in The Brothers Karamazov, the Tao Te Ching, Olafur Arnolds, Schubert or even silence?

Perhaps the most revolting thing about advertisement is its inhumanity. It does not serve human need, but the need of capital. At its best, advertisement is profitable for a company, pulling in more capital through sales and profits than is being spent on the ad. At its worst, advertisement is a way of funneling enormous amounts of profits that would otherwise be taxed and used for public infrastructure back into the company image. Whether this mode of advertising results in net gain for the company or not is unimportant; it was not needed in the first place. If there is a net loss it does not matter for the company since this is money that would have been lost to them anyway through taxes. If there is a net gain for the company, there still is no real human benefit, for the profit is not a return upon production, but a return upon profit and goes only to expand already sufficient return upon investment. I am not speaking here about advertisement by companies starting out and acknowledging their place in the market in order to continue to exist, or about companies marketing better access to actual human services, but of already dominant companies, marketing not human needs but human distractions, vanities, and their own self image. Not only is much of what is marketed not needed by the consumer, but it is also unaffordable. Hence huge swaths of advertisement have become simply a contest in making debt look the most agreeable.

What reactions or reconsiderations do you have about advertisement? How do they effect your life? If soft-practices shape our lives and personalities, what unconscious effect does exposure to advertisement have on your life? What do you habitually or compulsively buy and consume that would effect your happiness and well-being little to do without?