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Friends,

I’ve added a new page to this blog in order to connect you with another of my blog’s called Walhydra’s Porch.

I entered the blogosphere in 2006 using the tragicomic voice of a character I call my “curmudgeonly alter-ego,” Walhydra. Walhydra had come into being as a storytelling device in the mid-1990s, when I was invited to join the Crone Thread, a private listserv of mostly pagan, mostly women elders, folk who understand, revere and emulate the Crone.

Since the decline and death of my parents in the past three years, I’ve not been able to sustain Walhydra’s wise though sarcastic voice. For the sake of continuity, therefore, I’ve copied onto the new page the archival links which, on that other blog, I call Mileposts.

Take a look.

Back in June, I published a very long essay on this blog titled “Melancholia & thisness: where does joy abide?

In brief, this essay was a response to leadings I gained from rereading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. More specifically, is began with a description of melancholic temperament and walked through the approaches to reconnection with life adopted by Robinson’s characters (Kami and veriditas, Thisness) in order to arrive at joy.

In the key passage, I wrote of my experience in the 1980s, in a gay/lesbian congregation:

Given my own odd combination of staid Lutheranism and passionate Paganism, it amused me during those services to find my hand lifting as if on its own when I felt an excess of joy—as if there were too much energy to hold and I needed to give some of it back to God/dess.

That sort of experience would happen not only in worship, but also on woody hikes, or while reading something poignant or hearing a powerful song lyric, or after a successful session with one of my counseling clients—or just whenever.

In my late fifties, the new twist is this.

During those earlier years, the gesture of thanks came in response to joy. Presently, whether I become aware of a blessing or become aware that I have trapped myself in anxiety or despair, I am led to stop, settle into the moment, and allow a wave of thanks to rise through me.

Joy follows thanks.

Thanks for what? Thanks to whom?

Thanks for being brought back to awareness of the moment, painful or beautiful or both. Thanks to the wholeness of which my transitory “self” is a part.

This past weekend, I was led to approach the issue of joy from a different perspective. I encourage readers to visit my other blog, Walhydra’s Porch, and read “Fearing Joy.”

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Part I: The parable of the weeds in the field
Part II: Religion or belief
Part III: Wilderness and cultivation

The parable of the weeds in the field

In a July post on Walhydra’s Porch, I built a story around the troublesome contrast between a new Lutheran pastor’s doctrinally correct sermon and the palpable, all-inclusive embrace of an image of Jesus which spreads its arms over the sanctuary where the sermon was preached.

Since then I have read a remarkable new book by James P. Carse called The Religious Case Against Belief (2008). Carse’s valuable central distinctions are reflected in the contrast I just mentioned. Reading him has not resolved my discomfort with that July sermon or the gospel lesson upon which it was based, yet it has given me new ways to open out and explore that discomfort.

Here is the first half of that lesson:

[Jesus] spun out another parable for them:

Heaven’s imperial rule is like someone who sowed good seed in his field. And while everyone was asleep, his enemy came and scattered weed seed around in his wheat and stole away. And when the crop sprouted and produced heads, then the weeds also appeared.

The owner’s slaves came and asked him, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then why are there weeds everywhere?” He replied to them, “Some enemy has done this.”

The slaves said to him, “Do you want us then to go and pull the weeds?” He replied, “No, otherwise you’ll root out the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to burn, but gather the wheat into my granary’.”

—Matthew 13:24-30
(The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version,
1994, 81-82)

It was not actually this parable itself which troubled me. Or, rather, the parable troubled me in the way that parables are meant to do, as a deliberately puzzling story, devoid of context or particularity, designed to draw its hearers into a perpetual debate over its meanings.

What troubled me that Sunday, as it always does, was the second half of the lesson, the allegorical interpretation which the author/editor of Matthew contrives to have Jesus share privately with his disciples as an “explanation” of the parable:

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him with this request: “Explain the parable of the weeds in the field to us.”

This was his response: “The one who ‘sows the good seed’ is the son of Adam; ‘the field’ is the world; and ‘the good seed’ are those to whom Heaven’s domain belongs, but ‘the weeds’ represent progeny of the evil one. ‘The enemy’ who sows (the weeds) is the devil, and ‘the harvest’ is the end of the present age; ‘the harvesters’ are the heavenly messengers.

“Just as the weeds are gathered and destroyed by fire—that’s how it will be at the end of the age. The son of Adam will send his messengers and they will gather all the snares and the subverters of the Law out of his domain and throw them into the fiery furnace. People in that place will weep and grind their teeth. Then those who are vindicated will be radiant like the sun in my Father’s domain.

“Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

—Matt. 13:36-43

For most of my adult life, I have resisted Matthew’s portrayal of a Jesus who would cast out some and vindicate others. A Jesus who would instruct the crowds only in parables, yet give his privileged disciples in private “the secrets of Heaven’s imperial rule” (Matt. 13:10-11). Or, more accurately, I have resisted the way institutional Christianity has interpreted and applied Jesus’ words about “sorting out” over the millennia.

I understand now that Matthew was writing in a historical context, interpreting Hebrew scriptures in a way he hoped would minister to his little congregation of proto-Christian Jews. In the years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they had been expelled from the synagogue (Matt. 5:11) over the debate as to who was the true Israel. Was it the rabbinic Jews, the Pharisees, who valued the continuing revelation available through the study of scripture? Or was it those like Matthew’s group, who saw a special role for Jesus as bearer of a unique revelation, the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophetic tradition?

In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006), Karen Armstrong writes that the Pharisees believed

the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law…. [The] essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit…, summed up in the Golden Rule” (453).

One can see how such a transformation of Judaism from a temple-centered religion to one of attentiveness to daily life, contemplation and communal generosity would have been salutary to Jews of the post-Jerusalem Diaspora. Ironically, one can also see how similar the values of rabbinic Judaism, as described by Armstrong, are to those taught by Jesus.

Armstrong adds this:

In Rabbinic Judaism, study was as important as meditation in other traditions. It was a spiritual quest: the word for study, darash, meant “to search,” “to go in pursuit of.” It led not to an intellectual grasp of somebody else’s ideas, but to a new insight. So rabbinic midrash (“exegesis”) could go further than the original text, discover what it did not say, and find an entirely fresh interpretation….

Scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a historical event that had happened in a distant time. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own situation. This dynamic vision could set the world afire.

There were, therefore, no “orthodox” beliefs. Nobody—not even the voice of God himself—could tell a Jew what to think…. (455)

When they spoke of God’s presence on earth, they were careful to distinguish those traits of God that he had allowed us to see from the divine mystery that would always be inaccessible to us…. [The] reality they experienced did not correspond to the essence of the Godhead. No theology could be definitive…. God had, as it were, adapted himself to each person “according to the comprehension of each.” What we call “God” was not the same for everybody. (456)

Meanwhile, in the midst of the Diaspora communities were smaller groups of Jews like those for whom Matthew wrote. Probably for a variety of reasons, these people had been overmastered by the stories and personal witness shared with them by those of the previous generation who had known or heard of a teacher and healer named Yeshua or Yehoshua (Hebrew for Joshua, meaning “the Lord is salvation”; translated into Greek as Iesous, Latin Jesus). For these Jews, Yeshua was a profoundly compelling mashiah (“anointed one”; translated into Greek as christos).

While both Temple ritual and the study of Torah (“the Law”) had been ongoing traditions, Yeshua was the contemporary incarnation of a counterforce in the history of Judaism: the disruptive intrusions of the prophets. These were spirit-filled men who confronted the people when their ritual practice or argument of the Law had become superficially pious behavior, masking their real abuse and neglect of their neighbors.

The prophets had the role of calling people out from such unreflective, habit-bound practice of outward forms, calling them back to a life in which the reality of the mysterious and awesome YHWH (“G-d”) breathed in and through them, even without forms.

For Jews like those in Matthew’s congregation, Yeshua was a man in whom this Spirit (Hebrew ruach, “breath”) walked with unbounded clarity and compassion, yet also with a fierce, unflinching judgment. When he spoke in confrontation, whether gently or with anger, it was not with condemnation or malice, but with that same spiritual clarity.

Look. This is how things really are in G-d’s world. The Law is not commandments, rules to follow. It is—couched in human words and images—simply a description of how we live spontaneously whenever we let ourselves be led by G-d’s Spirit. When we, even for a moment, find ourselves together in the already present Kingdom. “Mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6a).

Imagine, then, a synagogue of Greek-speaking post-Jerusalem Jews, taking refuge in the hope and experience of G-d’s presence in their midst as they hear and interpret their scriptures. Imagine the ferment stirred by those among them who responded with enthusiasm (Greek entheos “possessed”; en– “in” + theos “god”) to the stories of this new prophet, Yeshua. Imagine the distress, uncertainty and conflict at this disruption of a recently regained sense of spiritual security in those communities.

However the conflicts played out across the Diaspora, in various places the rabbinic Jews forced out the Yeshua-followers. And scholars like Matthew, ministering to their expelled fellows, created their own midrash, reinterpreting Hebrew scriptures to place Yeshua in the center of expectations for a new mashiah. It was an effort to assure continuity between the Judaism they knew and this new revelation. It was also an effort to persuade those still in synagogue with their own scriptures.

Yet the hurt of expulsion vibrates through the text. The Pharisees and scholars are recast by Matthew as the “villains” who rejected Yeshua. Whatever actual dealings Yeshua had with such people during his life, Matthew tells us of them through the perspective of one who was expelled from synagogue. When he does his own rabbinic interpretation of Yeshua’s words, when he portrays Yeshua as doing such interpretation, how do we know whether we are hearing Yeshua in his own context or Matthew in his?

Wait, though. Even as I write this, I can recognize the temptation to use this “historical Jesus” perspective on Matthew as a dodge, a way to avoid having to consider the possibility that Yeshua did warn, both directly and in parable, of a sorting out of “weeds” from “wheat” in the community of humankind.

Whatever I may want him to have “really meant,” it is clear that Yeshua voiced scrupulous judgment and gave compassionate yet unwavering warnings to those whom he met personally. I must do as Armstrong says those first century Jews did. I must confront the text, open myself to it, and apply it to my own situation.

In Part II of this series, I will describe how my reading of James Carse has contributed to this process.

[To be continued]

Blessèd Be,
Michael

The inside blurb to Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons begins, “Frederick Buechner has long been a kindred spirit to those who find elements of doubt as constant companions on their journey of faith.”

The book was a birthday gift from my mother two years ago, and I’ve been slowly making my way through its gentle, surprising sermons ever since Christmas of that year.

This past weekend, just as the newest post for Walhydra’s Porch was starting to come together, I opened the book to “Faith and Fiction,” a long piece in which Buechner tells about his experience as a religious novelist and explores how faith and fiction rely upon common characteristics:

The word fiction comes from a Latin verb meaning “to shape, fashion, feign.” That is what fiction does, and in many ways it is what faith does too. You fashion your story, as you fashion your faith, out of the great hodgepodge of your life—the things that have happened to you and the things you have dreamed of happening….

In faith and fiction both you fashion out of the raw stuff of your experience. If you want to remain open to the luck and grace of things anyway, you shape that stuff in the sense less of imposing a shape on it than of discovering a shape. And in both you feign—feigning as imagining, as making visible images for invisible things. (174-75)

Toward the end of the piece, Buechner revisits these parallels:

To whistle in the dark is more than just to try to convince yourself that dark is not all there is. It is also to remind yourself that dark is not all there is or the end of all there is because even in the dark there is hope…. The tunes you whistle in the dark are the images you make of that hope, that power. They are the books you write.

In just the same way faith could be called a kind of whistling in the dark too, of course. The living out of faith. The writing out of fiction. In both you shape, you fashion, you feign. Maybe what they have most richly in common is a way of paying attention. (182)

These passages frame Buechner’s description of writing several novels about an imaginary saint and one more about a historical one.

The passage which caught my attention, though, on the morning when Walhydra got going with her latest piece, is this one:

If you had to bet your life, which one would you bet it on? On Yes, there is God in the highest, or, if such language is no longer viable, there is Mystery and Meaning in the deepest? On No, there is whatever happens to happen, and it means whatever you choose it to mean, and that is all there is?

We may bet Yes this evening and No tomorrow morning…. But we all of us bet, and it’s our lives themselves we’re betting with in the sense that the betting is what shapes our lives. And we can never be sure we’ve bet right, of course. The evidence both ways is fragmentary, fragile, ambiguous…. Whether we bet Yes or No, it is equally an act of faith….

Faith…is distinctively different from other aspects of the religious live and not to be confused with them….

Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises. Faith is different from mysticism because mystics in their ecstasy become one with what faith can at most see only from afar. Faith is different from ethics because ethics is primarily concerned not, like faith, with our relationship to God but with our relationship to each other.

Faith is closest perhaps to worship because like worship it is essentially a response to God and involves the emotions and the physical senses as well as the mind, but worship is consistent, structured, single-minded and seems to know what it’s doing while faith is a stranger and exile on the earth and doesn’t know for certain about anything.

Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting. Faith is journeying through space and through time. (172-73)

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

Somewhere I have read that joy does not depend upon happiness.

And somehow I have come to understand that salvation is first of all about this life, not the next.

Joy and salvation are intertwined in how one receives this finite, fallible, mortal existence. How one goes about each moment and each day. How one forgives the hurts and errors of each moment—one’s own and those of one’s fellows—and proceeds to the next moment with all the possibilities of life restored.

This may sound like the same old religious pie-in-the-sky we’ve all heard about and scoffed at and yearned for. Nevertheless, I am coming to know it as a pragmatic, down-to-earth, “survival faith and practice.”

Melancholia: I introduced the notion of melancholic temperament in “On waiting and squirming” last August. It also became a regular theme on my other blog, Walhydra’s Porch, from November, when I began anti-depressants and short-term therapy, through February, when I realized I was getting back to a “functional normal.”

It has taken me fifty-some years to accept that temperament is just temperament. One can easily enough focus solely on “bad temperament,” the collection of unhappy personality traits which one tolerates or suffers and longs to be rid of. However, temperament is really a complex, organic whole, to be known and valued and cared for, like the “inner child” that it is.

Even so, as much as I may have matured, there is still nothing pleasant about the tormented side of melancholia. Hence, it always helps me to get someone else’s perspective on the matter.

I am currently rereading Kim Stanley Robinson‘s brilliant 1990s science fiction trilogy about colonizing and terraforming Mars: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Half way through the Red Mars account of the colony’s first decades, Robinson introduces a long chapter called “Homesick,” narrated from the perspective of Michel Duval, the lone psychiatrist among the First Hundred (as the colonists are called).

To his profound dismay, Michel is also the lone colonist who hasn’t adapted to the cold, alien planet. All he longs for is to return to the warm Mediterranean climate of his home in Provence.

Wandering through each day in despair, he has to turn on what he calls “the shrink program in his head” in order to do his job.

The bleak plain surrounding the base was a vision out of some post-holocaust desolation, a nightmare world; nevertheless he didn’t want to go back into their little warren of artificial light and heated air and carefully deployed colors, colors that he had chosen for the most part, utilizing the very latest in color-mood theory, a theory which he now understood to be based on certain root assumptions that did not in fact apply here. The colors were all wrong, or worse, irrelevant. Wallpaper in hell. (215)

To keep himself focused, Michel concentrates on developing a system of personality classification by which he can analyze his colleagues. In particular, he challenges himself to integrate two separate descriptive dimensions: the lability-stability index and the extroversion-introversion distinction (see Note).

As his schematic becomes more sophisticated, Michel realizes that he can overlay it with the ancient system of the humors…and that is when he recognizes himself to be a classic melancholic, “withdrawn, out of control of his feelings, inclined to depression” (222), one of only five in the whole colony.

Even in recovery from depression, as I now believe myself to be, I resonate with Michel’s predicament. Here is a sensitive, private person with volatile emotions, who strives to counterbalance these traits by staying wholly in the rational shell of himself. Cut off from the glowing, sensual life of remembered past, he feels as dead as the planet to which his own choices have exiled him.

Any of us, regardless of temperament, can find ourselves trapped in despair like Michel’s, in response to the irreversible changes and losses of life.

The human animal has a special capacity for stepping back from its own experience to observe, analyze, theorize about, and even try to relabel and redirect that experience. The brain, having constructed consciousness, can imagine elaborately abstract perceptual-conceptual “realities” from within which consciousness can operate.

One such category of realities is that of “being wholly rational.” When one has too much of sensory pain or of emotional pain, one can learn to “detach” oneself, observe the pain and its causes and effects “objectively,” and proceed with life in a “functionally normal” way.

Many religions, philosophies and psychologies seem to advocate this sort of detachment, and many of us in our spiritual questing strive to acquire it. In the true heart of such paths, though, beats the knowledge that such detachment is not only illusory but dangerous.

Michel, in his struggle to escape grief, becomes detached from life. He roams Mars with no appreciation for it, an amnesiac who turns on his “Michel Duval program” when he must interact with others, his consciousness repeatedly fleeing to an insubstantial Provence-of-the-mind.

In “Walhyra’s year of becoming mortal,” I wrote of my own dark flight from grief over friends dying of cancer and parents declining into Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s:

This is not just temperament, or circumstance. This is Walhydra’s own personal version of what every human being faces: death and the certainty of death.

It’s enough to make one want to be beyond feeling.

And that, Walhydra now realizes, is what she has actually been working on in her haphazard morning rituals over the past year: trying to be “beyond feeling.”

She hasn’t been denying causes of grief or fear, yet she’s been trying to avoid the slippery slope of melancholia. In the process, her brain has done what that organ knows how to do: suppress its own chemistry until Walhydra was deep in depression.

Kami and veriditas: So what is there instead? What is the difference between this faux detachment and the loving, compassionate non-attachment at the heart of real spiritual wholeness?

Hiroko, the leader of the Martian bioengineering and ecological systems team, takes a very different approach to the planet’s alienness than does Michel. During the early years on Mars, she and her fellows work and live away from the others in the greenhouses—almost a colony unto themselves.

In his blackest moment, Michel is suddenly invited into this group on a night when they sit in a naked circle in the soil among their plants, together with their nine or so toddlers—the first Mars-born children Michel has seen, the first he even knows of.

As Hiroko leads a chanting ritual, a woman named Evgenia explains for Michel:

They were celebrating the areophany, a ceremony they had created together under Hiroko’s guidance and inspiration. It was a kind of landscape religion, a consciousness of Mars as a physical space suffused with kami, which was the spiritual energy or power that rested in the land itself. Kami was manifested most obviously in certain extraordinary objects in the landscape—stone pillars, isolated ejecta, sheer cliffs, oddly smoothed crater interiors, the broad circular peaks of the great volcanoes.

These intensified expressions of Mars’s kami had a Terran analogue within the colonists themselves, the power that Hiroko called viriditas, that greening fructiparous power within, which knows that the wild world itself is holy. Kami, viriditas; it was the combination of these sacred powers that would allow humans to exist here in a meaningful way.

When Michel heard Evgenia whisper the word “combination,” all the terms immediately fell into a semantic rectangle [see Note ]: kami and viriditas, Mars and Earth, hatred and love, absence and yearning….

His jaw was slack, his skin was burning, he could not explain it and did not want to. His blood was fire in his veins. (228-29)

Michel joins the others as they each eat a fistful of Martian dirt which Hiroko has given them with the words, “This is our body.”

They all rise, chanting, and press together in a formless dance. Then Hiroko kisses Michel and says,

“This is your initiation into the areophany, the celebration of the body of Mars. Welcome to it. We worship this world. We intend to make a place for ourselves here, a place that is beautiful in a new Martian way, a way never seen on Earth. We have built a hidden refuge in the south, and now we are leaving for it.

“We know you, we love you. We know we can use your help. We know you can use our help. We want to build just what you are yearning for, just what you have been missing here. But all in new forms. For we can never go back. We must go forward. We must find our own way. We start tonight. We want you to come with us.”

And Michel said, “I’ll come.” (230)

This alternative to despair, opening to the holiness of the world, appeals to what on Walhydra’s Porch I call my “Pagan sensibility.”

I had an inchoate version of this awareness as a child. All children have it—unless or until it is trained out of them. When I left seminary and came out as a faggot in the early 1970s, I began to come awake to Pagan sensibility again.

I do not believe that the faith and practice of Jesus himself exclude this celebration of kami and viriditas. After all, he spent his whole life healing and sharing meals and bringing people back to full earthly life.

Nor do I believe that today’s Christians—or folk of any other religion of the heart—need fear or scorn the sensual and even erotic nature of mortal existence. It is not in relishing life but in trying at all costs to dodge death that we cause harm.

Somehow, Western Christianity was not sufficiently able to affirm, as did Eastern Christianity, the integrity of material and spiritual Creation which the latter knew from its Jewish roots. Yet Jesus knew that integrity intimately. It is to this incarnated knowing and doing that he calls people.

The division of flesh from spirit and the condemnation of the former as sinful are conceptual errors made by many cultures in many ages. There is great irony in this.

The animal naturally wants to avoid suffering. Its human consciousness is sometimes able to do so, since it is able, correctly or incorrectly, to infer causes and effects, and to plan and act in ways which may prevent or at least forestall suffering.

Yet human consciousness also knows of its own animal mortality, and it identifies that, too, as suffering. Worse, consciousness often blames its own animal nature for all that it suffers. This, at least, has been the Western response to the so-called “problem of suffering.”

The Christian West, in effect, forgot that Job suffered despite his righteousness, and that Jesus said, “God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45; emphases added).

Instead, the dominant tradition in the West has been that suffering and mortality are punishments for the innate moral failing of the whole human race, rather than simply circumstances of existence.

In his moment of “fire in the blood” with Hiroko’s clan, however, Michel Duval is jolted back into the integrity of flesh and spirit. From then on, he is able to stay in the present, rather than longing hopelessly for his past. He does not become a different person. He becomes who he is, increasingly able to engage in each moment without fending off or clinging to passing sorrows or joys.

Thisness: Still, simply allowing oneself to be alive in the matrix of flesh and spirit may not be sufficient. One still suffers. One still experiences loves and pleasures which one then loses. One still knows that self and loved ones will die—and witnesses the catastrophic suffering and losses of others.

As contrasted with the reaction of detachment, which may avoid knowing and feeling, compassionate non-attachment begins with a peculiar attitude of attentiveness to events and feelings.

During a key moment in Red Mars, John Boone and Maya Toitovna are relaxing in a sauna. John looks at his lover’s body, “as real as a rock,” and feels a glow. The tiles themselves throb “as if lit from within; light gleam[s] on every water droplet…, like tiny chips of lightning scattered everywhere…” (292).

John realizes that this moment must be the sort of experience described by Sax Russell, the First Hundred’s consummate exploratory scientist, one who is at once phlegmatic yet passionate about discovery.

The intense thereness of it—”haecceity,” Sax had called it once, when John had asked him something about his religious beliefs—I believe in haecceity, Sax had said, in thisness, in here-and-nowness, in the particular individuality of every moment. That’s why I want to know what is this? what is this? what is this?

Now, remembering Sax’s odd word and his odd religion, John finally understood him; because he was feeling the thisness of the moment like a rock in his hand, and it felt as if his entire life had been lived only to get him to his moment. (292-93)

Sax Russell is by no means a morally neutral person. He is the prime advocate and mover of the effort to terraform Mars, and he also intervenes repeatedly to disable the weaponry of earth’s authoritarian, exploitive colonialism.

More importantly, throughout the trilogy Sax pursues a quest to reach the heart of Ann Clayborne, the fellow First Hundred member who is terraforming’s absolute opponent. Sax attempts this, not because she opposes him, but because he wants to heal the profound pain he recognizes within her.

Sax’s Thisness is, nevertheless, not about moral judgment. Thisness is simply about observing what is, in all its painful and beautiful intricacy and transience.

Thisness reminds me somewhat of Buddhist mindfulness, that non-judging attentiveness to the flow of events, sensations, emotions and thoughts, which notices how the mind and body respond to experience, yet which does not assign positive or negative value to each moment.

Such mindfulness enables one to act—or to pause from acting—with compassion for oneself and all beings. One experiences suffering and pleasure, including the suffering or pleasure of others, without immediately reacting to avoid the former or hang onto the latter.

One can live in the moment and allow it to die, and one acts to enable the same for others.

Joy: But all the above discussion sounds theoretical, like trying to digest a shelf full of self-help books into their underlying themes. I believe what I have written—or at least believe it to be plausible—but it’s only ideas, not action.

I began this post by describing the visceral challenge of a melancholic temperament, that inner child which I must nurture, even when I do not feel fire in the blood, or when my distress or desire overwhelms my ability to practice mindfulness.

Now, as I move through my days, I find I am helped concretely by a new habit of response to whatever the moment brings.

In my late thirties, my partner Jim, our mutual friend Randy and I were attending a gay and lesbian church with an improbable mixture of Lutheran, Baptist and Pentecostal members.

Given my own odd combination of staid Lutheranism and passionate Paganism, it amused me during those services to find my hand lifting as if on its own when I felt an excess of joy—as if there were too much energy to hold and I needed to give some of it back to God/dess.

That sort of experience would happen not only in worship, but also on woody hikes, or while reading something poignant or hearing a powerful song lyric, or after a successful session with one of my counseling clients—or just whenever.

In my late fifties, the new twist is this.

During those earlier years, the gesture of thanks came in response to joy. Presently, whether I become aware of a blessing or become aware that I have trapped myself in anxiety or despair, I am led to stop, settle into the moment, and allow a wave of thanks to rise through me.

Joy follows thanks.

Thanks for what? Thanks to whom?

Thanks for being brought back to awareness of the moment, painful or beautiful or both. Thanks to the wholeness of which my transitory “self” is a part.

As I confessed in my “Am I a nontheist…?” series, it is easiest for me to use my “native religious language” to describe such experiences. In this case, it is as if I am giving thanks to the Divine One, the One the Sufis call the Beloved and the Friend.

Yet “for what” or “to whom” doesn’t really matter, since I suspect the inner dynamic is the same, regardless of one’s faith and practice.

In pain or in beauty, thanks.

Then joy.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

Note: Robinson’s character, Michel Duval, develops his schematic of the four temperaments in a series of steps, beginning with the lability-stability index:

He had recently begun to consider Wenger’s index of autonomic balance….

The sympathetic branch [of the autonomic nervous system] responds to outside stimuli and alerts the organism to action, so that individuals dominated by this branch were excitable [i.e., labile]; the parasympathetic branch, on the other hand, habituates the alerted organism to the stimulus, and restores it to homeostatic balance, so that individuals dominated by this branch were placid [i.e., stabile]. (216-17)

He adds to this the extroversion-introversion distinction:

Not as a simple duality of course;…one placed [people] on a scale, rating them for such qualities as sociability, impulsiveness, changeability, talkativeness, outgoingness, activity, liveliness, excitability, optimism, and so on….

In fact physiological investigations had revealed that extroversion was linked with resting states of low cortical arousal, introversion with high cortical arousal….

[The] cortex inhibits the lower centers of the brain, so that low cortical arousal allows the more uninhibited behavior of the extrovert, while high cortical arousal is inhibitory and leads to introversion. (216)

Michel finds that simple x and y axes grids doesn’t work to map these two dimensions, so he tries a Greimas semantic rectangle

This was] a structuralist schema with alchemical ancestry, which proposed that no simple dialectic was enough to indicate the true complexity of any cluster of related concepts, so that it was necessary to acknowledge the real difference between something’s opposite and its contrary; the concept “not-X” being not quite the same thing as “anti-X,” as one saw immediately. So the first stage was usually indicated by using the four terms S, -S, S¯, and -S¯, in a simple rectangle…. (217)

The next step is to add an outer rectangle for combinations of relationships (218):

Finally, Michel adds extrovert-introvert and stabile-labile to the four inner corners. It is as he seeks labels for the combinations that he realizes the names of the four temperaments will fit.

For it made perfect sense: there were extroverts who were excitable [choleric], and extroverts who were on an even keel [sanguine]; there were introverts who were quite emotional [melancholic], and those who were not [phlegmatic]. (219)

Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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