Thursday, April 03, 2003

In the Middle

"In the middle of the journey of our life, I awoke in a dark wood, where I had lost my way."

Or words to that effect, depending on the translation (of Dante's "Inferno" as it begins.)

This passage has been used to help define what in common parlance is called the "mid-life crisis."

It seems to me every time we pause---or are forced by circumstances to "re-evaluate"--- we find ourselves in the middle of the journey, and most of the time it is in the middle of a dark wood.

Clearly I am in that second half of my life, maybe even in the middle of the second half. I don't know how much time I have left, and how much of that will be with relative freedom and reasonably good health and energy. I face as well a very uncertain immediate future. So I am looking at what I need to do and want to do, assuming I can clear my own path.

The most obvious sort of project, and the one I've been fitfully yet consciously engaged in for several years, is to pass on in the best form I can what I've learned and what I've experienced in five decades plus of sentience. That project continues, and I see it moving into a new phase, in which I share more specifically the elements of my own story.

Publishing a new edition of my mall book was one such effort, especially since it included a personal account of my experiences in the course of writing it and its first publication. So far I can't count those chapters as a stunning success in terms of response, which makes the future look bleaker, but you need a lot of stubbornness in this game. Sometimes people wonder why I'm not more gratified by praise. I am gratified, but I am often puzzled because I never know why I'm praised for one thing and not for something else that I believe is just as good if not better.

I've also been posting old articles and columns on one or another of these blogs, with contemporary comments and contexts. Eventually, if I'm able financially and otherwise, I'll publish a collection in book form.

Also, if I'm able, I want to take this a step further with some personal essays, and eventually go back to fiction and dramatic forms. These are hard. It's easier to be topical and riff on politics. But the journey of my life, if it is my life, should include these.

Besides these and other efforts that have to do with personal history and history in general (I told my first 'historical society' audience that I got really interested in history when I'd lived long enough to have some), I find myself in another place it's becoming apparent I've been moving towards for the past several years.

Jung wrote of changes, some of them revolutionary, which often occur in the second half of life. I don't think I've experienced the flip into the opposite, from extravert to introvert, for example. I'm as introverted as ever, and probably more so. But I do detect one change in emphasis.

I've seldom been accused of optimism. I've been called "cynical," which I'm not, and "skeptical," which by nature and on principle, I am.

I don't trust optimists, as a rule. If they're not conscious or unconscious con artists, their innocence is often unearned, and they can be dangerous. Cheerful people are nice to run into, but I wouldn't necessarily want to live or work in a building designed by an optimist, at least of the kind who believes things will just work out for the best, with or without fireproofing and emergency exits.

Optimism really lets you off the hook. If you say the glass is half empty, they laugh at you and call you a pessimist. But if they drink half a glass and there's no more water, they throw up their hands and say, "We didn't know! Don't blame us!"

Still...the truth is that bitterly enumerating everything that's wrong with the world, proving there's no hope and all is lost with incisive despair, is all much easier when you're young. You may channel your hormonal anger into apocalyptic pronouncements, but your skin tone is telling you that you will live forever and be immune from every disaster that befalls others.

I've been living with the analysis of apocalypse since the 60s. And yes, as Abbie Hoffman said, "We were reckless, we were headstrong, we were impatient, we were excessive. But goddammit we were right." And the decades have rolled out one analysis after another showing just how bad things are, how complex and intertwined and embedded the destructiveness is, how powerful the agents of destruction are.

There will be hell to pay, and there was a moment when I thought I might not live to see it, and that was good enough. I wasn't the only one doing that kind of calculation. I took boxes of my LPs to a used record place in Pittsburgh shortly before I left for California (hauling with me, it must be said, other boxes of old LPs). The place was run by a guy roughly my age, a fellow early baby boomer. At some point in the conversation he mentioned the crap to come we all know is coming and said, "but fortunately, we'll be dead by then," and we both laughed.

I don't think the calculation has changed much since then, in terms of when, for instance, the climate crisis wreaks pervasive havoc, but I don't feel much comfort in that, if I ever really did. For it was at about that time that I really started trying to put together some meaning, some pattern, that could possibly sustain a future, that could be a direction for hope.

Somewhat by accident, or at least coincidence (which should make Jungians etc. all warm inside), I found some directions to at least pursue a pattern of hope. And that became more and more central to the work I wanted to do. It’s not what you would call optimism, but it is an attempt to leave behind a way of hope, which has me in the odd position of accentuating the positive.

Again, I found writing about it, writing that way, is difficult. And again, I'm not getting a lot of positive response to being positive. My first efforts have been in the "Soul of the Future" projects. I've worked hard and written a lot, and so far with little to show for it in finished work. Just a lot of unpaid for time that’s gone.

My most recent efforts in a different but related area are going to show up in some form here and there in the coming months, all concerned with what I've been calling the "skills of peace." Just as waging war requires knowledge and practice, strategies, concepts and attitudes, so does making peace. These skills of peace have little to do with organizing demonstrations or petition drives, though they do bear significantly on how people talk about war. They are the skills required for peace in schools and the workplace, peace in the home, and peace of mind as well as peace on earth.

They are tools of compassion, skills of empathy, strategies of cooperation, tactics of conflict resolution, paths of facing up to the good and evil in each and all of us. I've talked to a number of people engaged in such activities in the past couple of months, and if things work out I may have a book proposal on the subject soon.

Unfortunately, this project is going to have to be more sustaining financially than it has been so far. Or something else has to materialize if I'm going to be able to continue with this program. Or be in reasonable control of just about any program.

Pausing in the middle, you try to look ahead. But you wind up looking back, and wondering how you got so lost, or at least you wish you used your time better when the way was clear. I wonder if I tried too hard to stay in the middle, being too stubborn and at the same time not ruthless enough.

But then, so what? Is the intense masterpiece so important, and kindness isn't?

The difference between publishers and writers, some wise person once said, is that publishers care about markets, while writers care about readers. Which implies that the readers don't have to be many. You don't have to know who they are. They don't even have to be alive until after you aren't. You don't make any money that way perhaps, and you maybe don't get to live as a consequence of your writing and its contribution, but the writing that gets done has some possibility of that life.

But at least one form of publishing---in the sense of making it public, even if there's no financial reward--- is available and not dependent on markets, and you're looking at it.

Doing these blogs and posting on the Internet has been vitalizing. Thanks to the Internet and email, I'm now back in touch with old college friends I haven't seen in decades, and far-flung extended family, including the first person I ever corresponded with, one of my cousins in Maryland. I'm in touch with writers I've read, people I've just met briefly, and people I've never met at all. My writing becomes part of a dialogue, it prompts a response in someone else's thoughts, feelings and memories. And sometimes I find out about it, very quickly.

I hope I can continue. I hope I can continue a lot of things, resume others, and do some new things. I'm sending out chapters of a novel for young readers (I figure middle school through high school) and proposals for a couple of biographies for the same age group. It takes me back to when reading first became really important to me. It would be nice to be able to do some of that. But the chances aren't real good. Saving the postage and putting that into lottery tickets is probably a sounder investment than sending out this stuff unsolicited.

Gee, did that sound cynical, pessimistic? Some say the glass is half full, some say it is half empty. Some say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. Some say it is half full of bilge water and half of hot air. Some say it is entirely empty of fossil fuel. Some say the glass is half full of milk and half full of cream, which makes it entirely full of half and half. Some say the glass is half-naked, some say it is half-crazy.

Here is an opinion on a similar subject by Shunryu Suzuki. Asked the old favorite of philosophy students, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?", he replied:
"It doesn't matter."

Monday, March 31, 2003

This War

In 1954 or so, Carl Jung was asked if he thought there would be nuclear holocaust. His reply: "I think it depends on how many people can stand the tension of the opposites in themselves."

What we are seeing is war. The consequences of releasing the dogs of war. We are seeing the havoc.

What we are seeing is all wars. The state of the art violence, death, heroism, blunders, unforeseen consequences, adaptations, lies, crimes,hysteria, back-biting, glorifying, vilifying, relentless unfolding of havoc. People become their group, because they are attacked and because they are attacking. Most do what they must do, to stay alive, which at times is the same as winning, the same as killing, and at other times and places is the same as escaping, surrendering. Many do what they must do as captives of their allegiance in a particular situation, which is to kill and die, to glorify and vilify. There are always those seeking personal advantage from death-dealing and dying, while in lofty safety elsewhere.

War evokes love and unleashes hate. It dictates behaviors that generate hate and liberate love. War is not necessary but when we will not understand ourselves, war will happen to provide us with object lessons. As this war began, it seemed to make sense that the best chronicles of World War II were the works of absurdity, of black humor or gallows humor: Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. But they were written two decades after the war. The absurdities of the moment are much too grim. They are cause for shock and awe.

War unleashes and liberates everything inside us, especially from the unconscious. We act with emotional certainty that appears even to us to be rational deliberation, and react with rage, fear and impulse, whether fighting the war, fighting against the war, reporting the war, running the war. We are immersed in events. The events matter, but they will control us until we understand ourselves.

Everything soon becomes the good guys against the evil ones. And so at the moment every war begins, it is lost. It doesn't have to be that way, even as a consequence of defending against the evil that men do. But until we can understand that this tension exists, of the opposites within ourselves, every war will do what every war has done, which is to prepare the ground for the next war.

Living with this tension is essential. Acknowledging it is basic to taking effective action. Sometimes taking a step back is to take a step forward. In our world taking a step back is to look more deeply in the mirror.