ON the Freedom to be Yourself in a World of Difference
TO honor the day of American independence, a few words on freedom, religion, and what we can and likely can’t do in this age of global connectivity and terrifying isolation. To write about one’s self is vanity but to reject vanity is merely to refuse the value of our prerogatives to feel and to think as we please. Vanity need not be vice however circumspect we must be to think it any virtue. So here goes.
I go on Hindu pilgrimages with Hindus. I’ve just returned from one that I have dreamt of doing for nearly 40 years. I’d explain it all to you, if you’d like to listen, and I’d try not to explain away the things about it that are far from easy to pardon or approve. We will all come to terms with our choices not because we all necessarily mature into a greater self-awareness but rather because we know that “the bell tolls for thee.” Whatever your religion or spirituality or absence thereof tells you, this being mortal has terms we share: its finite, its likely painful, and whatever you might think of death, life promises neither fairness or exculpation. I can’t think of anything worth doing that I could recommend for everyone and I’m hoping that others won’t insist that I do what they select either. Tolerance isn’t merely about accepting another’s choices, it’s about reconciling choices we accept and reject. It’s not always the case that one person’s freedom implicates another’s oppression but there’s burden in every life because we all take, not only give. As one Hindu text puts it, “we are all food and eaters of food.” That’s a religious claim I can fathom.
I read and study sources in Sanskrit, Tamil, and other Indian languages, most of which come from a hoary past and are filled with admonition, advice, and genuine religious invitations. I feel no compulsion to believe any of what I read and when asked why I participate in rituals or tell these stories, it’s because I’ve decided there is something in it that I can’t resist. What is unresistable to me may be of no interest to you. I’m not the least bit interested in compelling your interests or persuading you of anything. “Zealous convert” is an oxymoron and I’ve got nothing to preach. We all, however, have something to learn and for that we will need teachers. I’ve spent my life studying religions not because they are true or somehow teach truths common to all humanity but because people need what religions do.
WHETHER it’s to procure our life passages ---hatch, match, dispatch--- or create the solitaries of tribe, culture, or to meet some other social or creative expression, humans have offered the best and the worst of themselves through our religious cultures. We don't all meet at some cosmic place of reconciliation unless that is your chosen worldview, but we do have shared human needs. Just as we’ve never met people without language, I think we’ll never meet people who have no need for religion, and by that I mean what religions do for us. Even if that’s just lighting a candle at a memorial and involves shifting our language to the most secular registers in our pursuit of commonalities, we do not become moral beings because we need religions, we are human beings with impassioned, sometimes urgent needs.
MYTH defies credulity and thwarts the powers of reason if all we admit are the resources of waking awareness and yet it is only in waking awareness that we can interpret what more mythology, ritual, pilgrimage, and study might mean. My Hindu teacher taught me how to think, not what to think and that means he taught me that every question that is worth asking does more than inform us, it challenges our self-representations and invites self-subversion. There are 330 million gods (at the very least) because this is how many questions we can ask, how many conversations we can have. And to have a conversation it’s often helpful to have it with someone, especially the gods, the demons, and all of the denizens of one’s experience. For me, to be “Hindu” is to be every character in the story and then some because I am more than any definition of Hindu that I’ve ever read or contrived. Being “every character” means I must be more than Hindu, but that’s part of the definition.
BESIDES, I grew up in New Jersey, born an American, and that means there is little that makes me like my fellow Americans than our shared proposition. We claim “all men” [sic] are “created equal,” so we begin by stating as fact what we know is a far more complex, even murky demand that we’ve spent the past 240 or so years grappling with, and denying as the right of our fellow Americans. That’s not “another story,” that’s the story. None of us are less than the sum of ourselves or our histories and that can never be zero-summed anymore than we can claim to know the all of ourselves. We are limited beings, somatic creatures, part of nature that we’ve only very recently in our history as a species have come to understand with any modicum of reality. We are historical beings, privileged and deprived, made and in the process of making with only the tools we have as humans.
MY American identity troubles me not because we have failed to meet the lofty claims of our shared proposition but rather because we reserve the right to fail, to reject that claim as part of our independence. I’m troubled not by our freedom but by what we believe it permits us to be: beings apart, beings free to feel and think in ways that refuse other human beings our shared humanity. As for my “religious” identity as a Hindu, that is more chaotic than it is disorganized, a source for both personal elasticity and self-organization. As a “religion” being my-own-version-of-Hindu has everything to do with a contention that the methods of modern science provide our best, albeit provisional and incomplete understandings of this world. Left only with science we will forsake the poetic, the indirect, the power of the humanistic to tap the grace and goodness that we can create. No religion I know of has more options to consider the elasticity and viscosity of human possibilities than the Hindus. There’s not a belief that doesn’t seem to appear somewhere and there’s not one that I know of to which you must adhere.
WHILE religion too often demands we forsake our powers of reason for a claim to higher force, mine contends that we are that higher force and that our prospects for success, even greatness, requires we use the all of ourselves. We’re going to need all of the gods and demons, all of the words we know and don’t; we going to need every bit of reason and our feeling to learn how to love life and embrace each other. That latter task is no small matter because we can be equally assured that we human beings will disagree about fundamentals, not just peripherals--- that we will vociferously object to others’ values and behaviors; that we will discover conflict to be as real, often far more real, than any possibility of harmony. So what are we prepared to do about it?
AS if you haven’t noticed, I write long pieces with words---spelling bee words, occasional f-bombs, and punctuation. If you’re looking for spiritual Capital Letters ---The Absolute, Consciousness, the Divine---or for memes that work on Twitter, there are plenty of other people who are happy to accommodate you. If you’re spirituality isn’t focused on humanistic concerns, which includes politics, then you’ll also need someone else to think with. I realize that life’s messy, irresolvable issues drive people to seek answers in places that satisfy our hopes and dreams, in fantasies of consolation or ultimate freedom. But if your worldview requires theologies or theories that take you from this world and into another, then you’re asking for religion. This is means you’ve essentially given up on reality and I can understand that but I don’t empathize. I don’t feel your dissociation anymore than I share your affinity for an alternative spiritual reality. I’m stuck in this one, the one that involves being involved in the whole world, in the conversations that involve opinions and contrariety that aspire to make accommodation for differences and include the admission that we’re all compromised.
WE THE PEOPLE all make concessions to our ideals and principles but I’ll take that a step further: concession is the path we must tread to incremental progress when there is no real prospect for consensus. This has never been more true than in America this July 4th, 2016. I’m here now and mean to work for a future dramatically different, the sort that replaces the tired conflicts of the past with something more inclusive and progressive. But I think that bending that moral arc is serious, hard work and that it’s nothing like a certainty: we humans are just as likely to regress, degenerate, or allow ourselves yet another impenetrable form of self-satisfying ignorance to lead the way. I’m not sanguine we Americans really are up to it since changing things for the better is no simple matter and we’re good at making it more difficult. Our government is designed to be cumbersome, slow working, and to demand from us the recognition of our deep disagreements. This design was, in part, a method to prevent even more revolution and violence but it has its downsides: we complain “nothing gets done” knowing implicitly that can’t and won’t agree on what to do. Progress is not inevitable, those are social and political realities that demand our attentions. And as for spirituality, whatever one proposes that to be, no one’s gonna get a free pass because their meditation practice or their world view, their god or their enlightened master confers dematerialization into your own personal dome of silence. (There’s a Get Smart joke in this somewhere.) Don’t mistake me, I’m all for vacations and peace of mind but do come back. Those of us still here will take care of things till then. I hope you’ll do the same for me when I occasionally check out. Carry on, and if handstands make you feel good too, how could one seriously object? I’m done debating the “real” meaning of “yoga” because it never actually ever had one real meaning. There’s not one of anything but the utterly useless idea of uniqueness. Revel in your individuality but never in your aloneness ---the best of being alone is also made possible by other people.
CAN we admit there is an invincible ignorance in the world? (N.B., again a claim with which some Hindus, nay, all sorts of others would adamantly disagree, which tells us nothing more about ignorance but rather a great deal about differences.) Yes, it is invincible and no amount of education or wisdom is going to change that anytime soon (or more precisely, anytime). Don't take me for the glum cynic here, it’s just that it’s far easier to fuel emotions than it is to change minds, and there’s always someone we can blame for what we can’t control. Our job isn't to cure this ignorance but to offer alternatives. If your religion conspires to bring the rest of compassion or even an indifferent tolerance, then you’ll hear no objection from me. Go on, believe what you like but know that there are costs. When those costs cost the rest of us, be prepared to hear about it. This is all made the more difficult because you'll never penetrate the impenetrable, never will evidence or reason actually determine the story. Instead you might reach into more willing hearts that can change because you are the example of an alternative to the one with all the answers. We’re not always so exemplary and we’ve all got our shadows and pasts, but receiving the world for what it creates requires more than the recognition that power is the story. There’s more than power over in a world of power: there is power to and power for. This may require something more like what Frodo and Sam did, or what you see when a firefighter runs into the fire rather than away from it.
TEACHERS will be examples of that required misdirection because they’re not just performers or entertainers or star athletes proffering up their genius. Teachers struggle in public with what it means to be learning. Learning involves opinion, experimentation, which implies failure, and a process devoted to a tedious, not always rewarding project that guarantees neither applause nor self-satisfaction. If you’re looking for contentment, it comes only when you decide not to refuse the other alternatives. Happiness is built on paradoxes and covenants, you can trade-off without entirely selling out but that too comes with costs. So if you are a teacher, off the example of the alternative to ignorance. Knowledge as far as we can know is provisional, never absolute in the sense of being immune to reexamination, but that’s not to say all opinions are equal. Opinions respect the facts, which is why both can change. Wisdom isn't an action but it appears in actions: like courage, it is no virtue but rather the requisite for virtue. And as for the stupidity in the world, well, since there's no fix, just drive on past those billboards that make your blood boil, baffle you with unbelief, and then say to yourself, "I'm not alone, I'm not alone..." And write to me when you can. Or join in a seminar or some other conversation. I'll be 'round. Keep to the ardor. It's our only calling.