After I first posted this blog yesterday, I began to feel some guilt about how “middle class” my reflections are. They focus on those of us who have many resources for moving through these hard times. Yet so many of the unemployed and poor do not have such resources and have found other ways, perhaps better ways, of moving through these times. I feel guilty for not addressing their ways, but the sad reality is that I do not know what and how they are doing this. So I write about what I know — middle class folks — and acknowledge what is missing from this post.
1. Because of the pandemic, I’ve been in isolation for four months, with many more to come. I get discouraged by the isolation. Discouraged too by other crises we face in addition to the again spiking pandemic. Economic injustice, racism, immigration, unemployment and a failing economy, Trump’s dangerous stupidity and campaign viciousness at all levels…. All within the dark horizon of global warming and mass population movements.
I hear similar discouragement voiced by friends.
And I just read about Michelle Obama’s recent podcast where she confesses the low-grade depression she lives with because of the pandemic and the constant news about racism. She speaks of the “dispiriting” effect such hard realities have on her.
So I write here about how we might make it through these hard times, even if only to encourage myself.
My notes and suggestions make no pretense of completeness or of ordered sequence.
I also know that most of us have found ways of dealing with hard times and discouragement. For there are many ways for moving through these times. Many heads and hearts are needed to remind us of shared sanity and to imagine the endurance and encouragement and hope we need. So I again ask for your thoughts in response.
2. In his last book, Images of Faith (1973), my mentor Lynch wrote:
Everything I have ever written asks for the concrete movement of faith and imagination through experience, through time, through the definite, through the human, through the actual life of Christ. (p. 81)
As I said in beginning my book about Lynch, the full meaning of that sentence takes a long time to unpack. Yet one begins to feel its meaning by Lynch’s rhythmic repetition of the word “through”: through experience, through time, through the definite, through the human, through the actual life of Christ. And by his emphasis on “the concrete movement” of both “faith and imagination” through these realities.
So that shall be the theme of my notes – that we need to find good, sane ways to “move through” the challenges of our hard times. Said simply, the only way to go is to go through. NOT trying to escape hard realities by a retreat “within” or some sort of transcending “above it all.”
(A brief note about the perhaps puzzling final phrase of Lynch’s sentence – his call for the movement of faith and imagination “through the actual life of Christ”. This is precisely what Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises call for: moving slowly with our imaginations through the gospel stories about Jesus’ life. This spiritual “exercise” or practice need not be limited to Christians. It can be fruitful for those of other faiths and for secular humanists. More below.)
3. I begin negatively by stressing that we are regularly tempted NOT to move through hard realities, but to escape them by seeking refuge, as I’ve said, in some transcendence “above” or some separate peace “within.” Of course, we do need escapes, at least I do. Into superficial entertainment and fantasies, what I fondly call “junk” food for the soul. Or the actual junk foods of sweets and drink. These can all be legitimate ways to distract ourselves from present crises and provide momentary release from discouragement.
Yet such escapes can become habitual, even addictive, perhaps especially in hard times. Then we risk becoming, as T. S. Elliot wrote, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
This can also be true for religion and spiritual practice. Marx was not wrong to claim that “religion [too often, I add] is the opium of the people.” Fundamentalist faith about “God’s Will” or retreat into prayer and meditation – these can easily become spiritual opium. Though, of course, religious belief and spiritual practice can also be very important ways for moving through these times.
It’s equally true that political passion and ideological beliefs are just as often an opium, as we’ve seen in both the historical legacy of Marxism and the capitalist legacy of Adam Smith. These days it seems that consumerism is the primary opium for many more people than either religion or politics. As also the particularly “American” temptation to throw ourselves into doing, doing, and more doing. “Just do it. ” (Really?)
4. Of course, religion and politics, good food and drink, working and celebration, good books and films, even buying new things can be and often are crucial positive or realistic ways of moving through these hard times.
I repeat for emphasis (because these are good ways of moving through our times):
Religious celebration and meditation. Good books and movies. Good work of all sorts. Drinks and food with friends. Good conversation on zooms. Gardening and walks in the woods.
These can provide soul food to nourish sanity, provide encouragement, and sustain hope in these times.
5. Lynch especially stressed the importance of stories – in drama and fiction and cinema — as sources for such soul food. He first acclaimed books were The Image Industries (1959), about cinema and TV, and Christ and Apollo (1960), about more serious literature. In each book he first analyzed the many ways that our “arts and entertainments,” even our most serious arts, too often serve as escapes from reality into fantasy. Yet the dramatic or narrative imagination (in literature or film) more fundamentally can serve as an invitation not to escape but to enter into a story as it moves through the difficulties and challenges as well as the joys and hopes of its characters.
Nor need we think only of “great” novels and films. For the narrative imagination – the sense of moving through a story – is also nourished by folk tales, by children’s books and programs, and by a good number of popular TV series. I’ve always loved and been helped by writers like Dickens and Dostoievski, but I’ve also found fun and consolation in stories read with my grandchildren.
Nor, of course, is the narrative imagination nourished only by fiction. Most of us, to give but one recent example, have found courage and hope by following the media celebration of John Lewis’ life. And my wife’s book club just read about Churchill and the Brits suffering through the London Blitzkrieg.
6. Of course suffering is itself one of the most central ways whereby we move through difficulty.
Suffering tempts us to escape. Yet a clear recognition of and submission to suffering – even the final suffering of death – is crucial to sanity and hope.
Lamentation expresses such recognition, but it’s not something we hear much about these days. We Americans (at least those of us in the U.S.) prefer to “go boldly” and typically see lament as weakness. Yet lamenting – in person or communally, at national tragedies as much as personal loss – is a crucial form of facing up to hard realities. Just surf YouTube and listen to some of the great Black Spirituals like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” or “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and, above all, Billie Holiday’s wrenching rendition of “Strange Fruit.” You will hear the power of lamentation from a people who have so suffered.
7. Mention of suffering and lamentation evokes another essential spiritual practice for moving through hard times – the practice of silence.
Yes, Paul Simon’s magnificent “Sounds of Silence” is still a very relevant lament for the cancer of silence and separation in our consumer culture. Yet I here mean the practice of silence as a way of opening the soul both to difficulty or tragedy and to wonder and hope.
I’m someone who finds silence difficult. What the Buddhists call my “monkey mind” keeps chattering its nonsense even when I try to be silent – try to wait with joyful hope.
Yet silence, to put it quickly, is perhaps the primary way to awareness of the great mysteries which are beyond words: the great fundamental mysteries of unity (the one), and meaning (the true), and purpose (the good), and joy (the beautiful. For these are the mysteries which, even when we remain unaware, do sustain and encourage us as we move through time.
8. Finally, let me return to the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth and the call from Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises that we move imaginatively through those stories.
My previous note about silence somehow led me back to that magnificent gospel lament “I Wonder As I Wander.” Silent wonder under the sky, wondering why Jesus came but to die, for poor folks like you and like I.
Yet it is not just the story of Jesus’ death, but the stories of his life as he moves from birth to death – through the hard times that led to that murderous death.
For the Christian, these stories embody the reality that the Divine Mystery entered fully into human time – became incarnate as a fully human being, a man of his times. From birth through coming of age to prophetic mission and challenges to his last days. Those realities – perhaps especially when entered into by imaginative spiritual practice or more simply by Sunday Gospel readings and the movement of the liturgical year through Advent/Christmas to Lent/Easter – is for Christians the ground for meaning and courage as we move through the births and sufferings and deaths of our times.
Yet this is true in a different way for persons of other faiths, whether religious or humanist. At least it seems true in Western cultures and also in some African and some Asian cultures. For the stories of Jesus are iconic in these cultures. They provide a cultural pattern for movement through time and suffering even for the non-Christian — which is perhaps why that pattern is found in so much of our secular literature and film — the pattern of beginnings and coming of age, of challenge and suffering, and of some sense of an ending, whether tragic or comic. Thus the imaginative exercise of moving consciously and attentively through these gospel stories has, in these days of interfaith collaboration, proven very helpful for many who do not share Christian belief. Or so I’ve read and been told.
8. Et tu? What are your ways of moving through these times with courage and hope?
2 thoughts on “Moving Through These Hard Times”
Hi John: thanks for your latest blog. Your Weltschmerz I think is right on target — Trump, the pandemic, Trump, the environment, Trump, racism and inequities, Trump…. I don’t have anything profound except these three –no, four –thoughts:
a. I’m glad I’m old. It’s made me more philosophical, more willing to turn over the world to the young, and I don’t have to see some of the bad stuff that our children and grandchildren will have to endure.
b. I’ve had fun focusing on writing a novel. It’s not bad. What’s misery is trying to find a @$#%Y&# agent who might be willing to try and peddle it.
c. I have found doing 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles is like meditation. It focuses the mind and I don’t think about the suffering of others and things I can’t change–at least for a little while.
d. oh, yes. I almost forgot 4. There are a LOT of good people in the world, who work hard, who have idealism and moral values and who are lifting up the world. And who so often are just nice fun people. And there’s beauty. Thank goodness for beauty. Nature, art, human beauty….
Thanks, John, for the perspective on handling the tedium connected with the pandemic.
Stressing experiencing the present situation with a proper passivity makes sense. To scratch at an irritant often makes it worse. Also your point about allowing for comfort foods and films, to a degree I’m sure, is also wise. In one of his letters CS Lewis makes that exact point.
Shortly after reading your blog I came across a section in Meriol Trevor’s biography of Newman that underscored the wisdom of a proper passivity. In 1860, the worst year in his life according to Trevor, he was 59, Newman was met with difficulties with the Oratory, personal sickness, possible failure of a school he was trying to establish, and failure of a journal he was going to edit. Says Trevor; “It is possible that he was able to survive so much because he did not try to evade the suffering but to live through it…this tremendous power of living passivity finally enabled him to emerge with a spirit renewed and enlarged, it meant that he endure greater pain before the deliverance—because nothing is more difficult than too be forced to endure apparently useless mental frustration and sufferings. “pp. 236,237.
One final point: the greater quarantine time we have is an opportunity for listening to classical music. I don’t do it nearly enough. When I do I realize the power of the muse.