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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fragmented Sentences

       This summer I followed the creek on the lower end of the farm where I grew up all the way to its confluence with another stream near the White River.  I did this with a new friend, and I got to share with him pieces of my childhood.  It's healing for me to hold old and new together.  At age 50 I better understand the joy of seeing an old friend at a reunion.  I know better now why older folks compulsively tell stories.  They are engaged in the monumental developmental challenge of holding diverse parts of their lives together.  It does not have to be an act of selfishness or mere sentimentality to want the church or its young people to sing songs that connect us to our collective past.  If the church can even begin talking about psychic and social integration, then perhaps we will rescue a collective past to pass on.
      This is vital right now, because Westerners live increasingly fragmented lives.  And our typical ways of speaking reinforce our dis-integration. 
      Take the sentence, “It’s nothing personal.”  This is common currency for institutionalized treatment of people based on exploitive, economic standards.  Such speech pretends that we can have healthy senses of self that are divorced from our professional or economic life.  The flip side of this kind of speaking might be the the congratulatory expression, “We have a good professional relationship.”  This praises our ability to compartmentalize—to put our emotional needs, likes, dislikes, and social lives in a holding tank-- so that we can effectively relate to others strictly as producers or consumers.   These bifurcations of the self can work economically, but the division between public and private or professional and personal, comes at considerable psychic cost.
        In such a market-driven culture where deeply personal commitments must be held in reserve, it is not uncommon to ask, “Is there nothing sacred anymore?”  We lament that fewer things (like employees) are treated with special care.  But why is something considered sacred rather than secular to begin with?  The purpose of priestly or ritual holiness in biblical times was not to marginalize everyday life, but it was to infuse all of life with with a sense of reverence by paying special care to symbolic things.  Jesus’ own criticism of the ritualism of his day must lead us to ask why secularity is not sacred. Once this dichotomy between sacred and secular hardens-- when large swaths of life are de-sacralized, then it’s no wonder we complain about increasing disrespect. 
       Personal/professional, sacred/secular—our lives are full of such divisions.  In England this Spring I was pleased to notice that people there go “on holiday” as opposed to we Americans who go on “vacation” or a “retreat" from parts of our lives.  Worse yet, the church sponsors, “spiritual retreats,” without asking why they are spiritual, and not also social, physical or medical?  I’m all for concentrated times of prayer, but I’m suspicious of a purely mystical impulse.  Is it that we are caring for our bodies and social lives so well that we need to take a retreat from them in order to give isolated care to our spirit?  Sanctification seldom works that way.         
      What do we mean by the human “spirit,” anyway?  My friends in the “Joy Fellowship” who meet in our church building come from “Charismatic” backgrounds.  They want to simply feel the presence of God, as one lady said, “all the way into my toes.”  I’m pleased that there is an integration here of bodily and spiritual experience, but I have to save my finely parsed anthropology and intellectual exegesis about the human spirit for a different audience—one that strives to integrate head and heart.       
        Sometimes it's even hard to integrate different parts of the intellect.  The modern academy is anything but holistic.  For instance, therapists and philosophers tend to speak only “within their disciplines.”  Is that only because we need intensely practiced techniques apart from theoretical foundations?  Do we really crave more specialized knowledge of Danish manuscript evidence from Kierkegaard?   I doubt it.  Yet, to write “outside one’s field” is still widely considered a breach of discipline; today's scholars still tend to keep separate things separate.  
       Do these psychological dynamics explain why art seems impractical to so many people?  Is it fair to say that contractors cannot appreciate art, or is it that art has built a ghetto for itself which ceases to be widely edifying?  In a world where ethical norms are mere social constructions, beauty and meaning are becoming matters of private interpretation which can make no claim on others.  Like Truman Capote’s famous character, Holly Golightly, more and more Americans don’t even want to impose a name on their own cat let alone demand covenantal expectations of others.
       When relationships become transitory like this, people frequently feel they have to “start from scratch.”  Expressions like this speak of being cut off from the past, beginning from the first scratch on a blank slate, or starting ex nihilo, as if at a beginning of a race.  This runs counter to all the studies which show that meaningful change has to build on past strengths in adaptive rather than utterly reactive ways.      
             When Las Vegas advertises a "get-away’” by insisting “what happens here stays here,”  Sin City is inviting us to live a fragmented life.  Under the guise of privacy, people are ushered into experiences that must be carried separately—dis-integrated and kept secret from all the other relationships that form a sense of self.  Even when activities in far away places are honorable, participating in different sub-cultures may require vastly different roles, and the healthy person has to learn how to hold these different functions of the self together. 
        That's one reason why it is good news that Christ has come to "bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head."   Human beings and the whole creation look forward to what the therapists call “integration” or the bible often calls “being whole.”  Biblical words for the sick and the lame carry with them the notion of being divided.  Healing, by contrast, is a form of being made sound, having structural and systemic integrity.  I believe something like this is what Jesus means when he speaks of being “perfect.”  Rather than thinking of perfection as a kind of flawlessness, it might be helpful to think more in terms of becoming a "well-rounded" person who knows who she is. A person pursuing Christian completion is seeking to have the parts of her life connected, serving one overarching purpose.  
      Such a vision of Christian sanctification requires that the typical polarities people experience—public/private, personal/professional, sacred/secular, spirit/body, mind/heart, aesthetic/practical, past/future etc-- have to be held in creative tension. These parts of the self need to speak kindly to one another without collapsing into one another. Kids today tell one another, "Pull yourself together.” That may not be too far from my grandparents' expectation when they began prayer with a period of centering silence with the exhortation, “Let's collect our thoughts.”
       Occasionally, people will ask me if I think it is normal if they talk to themselves.  I always tell them, “It’s not only normal;  It's vital."  We badly need to have a knowable, single self across time, space and circumstance to talk to.  Only then can we say with the Psalmist, “Be still, my soul…”