Monday, April 20, 2020

Social Distancing and the Unexpected

Strange things happen to our minds when we’re forced to be alone.  The great Boston seaman, Joshua Slocum, in his book, Sailing Alone Around the World, describes how during a storm at sea, he was ill and fallen in his boat when a strange figure appeared, spoke to him, and took command of his 36 foot, wooden sloop, Spray. 

“To my amazement I saw a tall man at the helm.  His rigid hand, grasping the spokes of the wheel, held them as in a vise.” He appeared to be a foreign sailor with black whiskers and a red cap, and spoke to Slocum, assuring him he came as a friend. “I am one of Columbus’s crew . . . I am the pilot of the Pinta, come to aid you . . .,” he said, and urged Slocum to rest (who was in great pain), promised to remain at the helm for the duration of the storm, and warned Slocum about some plums he had stored that went bad. 

The storm raged on, but Slocum took some rest. He later awoke refreshed and quickly could see that “the Spray was still heading as I had left her. . . . I had been in the presence of a friend and a seaman of vast experience,” he said with regard to his phantom visitor from the Pinta. And Slocum added that he threw all the plums on his vessel overboard.  The point I want to stress. He was as far from other people as one could imagine—alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—but somehow managed to obtain real assistance, and in the form of a fellow seaman of Christopher Columbus!

In his Autobiography, Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini recounts how he was sick and imprisoned in Rome, in a dungeon, alone and without hope.  About to attempt to kill himself with a device he had constructed, an invisible force threw him to the ground, thwarting his suicide attempt.  This was followed by a dream vision of an angel that scolded him for trying to out himself. 

Cellini pulled himself together, and made it out of prison, convinced a messenger of God had saved his life.  We could also interpret Cellini’s experience in a more psychological way.   The force that saved him, we might argue, was his subliminal self, his deeper mind that took over his body and externalized itself in a culturally suitable dream.  Anyway you interpret the story, it says something interesting. Prolonged, even painful, isolation can sometimes trigger surprising uprushes of creative energy.

These uprushes can lead to small-scale discoveries that enrich our lives. I heard a great story on NPR about people baking bread in the pandemic and having transcendent experiences!  We’re used to rows and rows of bread options in the supermarket; but the shortfall in bakeries has made some of us proud bakers of our own bread.  A small step, perhaps, toward a more satisfying life-style.  These born-again bread-lovers just needed to be egged on by the spur of necessity.  The way we endure pain can bring out latent talent and joy.

Getting sick and isolated is sometimes the setting for large-scale changes. The Franciscan movement that powerfully impacted European history started when the bon vivant, Francis of Assisi, took ill.  Thomas of Celano’s biography of Francis tells  how after recovering from a long illness, his view of himself and of the world around him had mysteriously morphed.  His old interests and values had lost their charm. His old life no longer satisfied him.

He had a dream in which his house was filled with military gear, which baffled him at first.  But when it occurred to him that the dream was about the spiritual battle he needed to fight, he was exhilarated.  In his dream, all the clothing and signs of wealth of his father were gone.  Once his father got wind of his son’s newly acquired contempt for money, he tried to get the wayward boy locked up.  Francis, to make his point, stripped himself naked, gave all his fine clothing back to his rich dad, turned around and walked away—“whistling,” I recall from one account.  During the lonely break of his illness, something emerged to inspire him—fill him with a new breath of life that led to spiritual transformation.

This is an extreme example of how a person might be transformed by having to remain at a distance from other human beings. The millions everywhere today suddenly losing their livelihoods are not likely to rejoice at the opportunity to imitate St. Francis. Still, the prolonged withdrawal from ordinary life being imposed on so many of us is bound to make us think, maybe rethink our view of how to live our lives.

By slowing up, by pausing, we open the space to think.  Just the idea of having a mind is worth contemplating.  So is the idea of the extraordinary power of our minds.  Not only can we dwell on our capacity to think; we can dwell with profit on having the capacity to direct, shape and mold our thoughts.  So we can remind ourselves of a basic truth.  In the play of our mental life, we are the directors, the actors, and the authors. Finally, we can if we wish, reflect on another option, popular among many mystics: choose to stop thinking entirely.  Or to think only about transcending thought.

In our modern secular culture, we seem to depend on chance for our spiritual breakthroughs—like a near-death experience—or other kinds of unexpected accident.  But many sail through existence without a hint of what lies behind the façade of ordinary life, the other dimensions of possible consciousness. Our ‘normal’ consciousness is filtered through the dominant one-dimensional consumer culture, which flattens the meaning curve to near zero.   The native peoples of America whose dignity, culture and wisdom the European settlers did their best to destroy had a way to counteract this passivity of the spirit by means the ‘vision quest.’  

The general idea found in many tribes is that one should actively seeks to connect with the Great Spirit.  So at a certain time a young person goes off alone in some remote habitat, fasting and praying for as many days and nights it takes to induce the saving vision.  Alone with the natural world and the Great Spirit, like Francis of Assisi, native Americans strip themselves of all barriers and defenses seeking to elicit a response from the Great Spirit.  

The idea of the vision quest reminds me of my boyhood ‘confirmation’ in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Astoria, New York, in which I recall myself allegedly becoming a “soldier” of Christ. At the peak of this sacramental rite, good Father Murphy gave me a slap in the face, not a real one but a soft, symbolic slap.  I extracted a small pious buzz from the experience; but it had no real transformative effect.  It demanded little of me, certainly by comparison with what’s s involved in a native vision quest.  Real body-and-soul delving solitude can uproot the psyche, and take us to where we’ve never been before.

There is one way we can all mitigate the solitude of our sheltered time.  It  is a type of out-of-body experience known as watching a movie.  Why does almost everybody--even philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein—love movies?  Why is Netflix the first stop for those who want to relax their bodies and place their minds somewhere outside themselves?  Isn’t that what’s happening when you watch a movie?

In my case, I’m lost in the imaginal space of the movie.  If I’m into the movie, I’m out of myself: I’m in another space, another narrative, with other voices and other faces.  I’m weightless, an amused spectator of life—a technologically induced out-of-body experience.  The movie screen enables a type of ek-stasis – a way to get out of our uptight, locked down, claustrophobic ego-space.

Social distancing is a polite way of saying that close contact with the other can be deadly; the only way to come together is for everybody to isolate themselves—the only hope for unity is to separate from each other. Ouch!  Talk about being in a bind.

I can imagine a fed-up deity or maybe pushy extraterrestrials creating this virus to stop the world in its tracks.  Maybe it wants us to pause and look around and see how incredibly destructive a species we humans are. Human contact with the natural world has been a disaster for the planet’s ecology.  The spectacle of this invisible agent wreaking havoc on our lives may be seen as nature’s nasty response to what the human virus has inflicted on nature.  The coronavirus is a very urgent call for humans to move beyond exploitation to rapprochement with nature.


Lisa Kenneth said...
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Sharon Wayne said...
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Albert said...
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Ose White said...
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Michael Grosso said...

I removed the four 'comments' above because they were ads for something totally unrelated to my post.

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