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Mon

02

Jul

2007

More Thoughts During a Dark Week
Monday, 02 July 2007 08:36
by Andrew Bard Schmookler

As shown by my piece of a few days ago – ”Hope May Spring Eternal, But It Also Has Its Dry Spells” – this has been a week in which my level of hopefulness dipped. Then, Friday, I had one of those days where I managed to find my way back to the well, i.e. to that place of the spirit from which greater strength and courage and faith comes. About the thoughts of that day, I’ll be writing soon, as I sort them out and discern how they want to be presented. In the meanwhile, though, I had already followed some of my darker thoughts and feelings into some places that I still want to share. They began with despair but did not end there.

Though I think the place of faith is in some way more real, more plugged into the deeper truth, the fear and the despair have a reality, too, that I do not wish to deny. And these thoughts began with my considering the unhappy possibility that we Americans may be in the process of truly losing, not to be regained, some things about our country that have been of great value.

It brought back to my mind a story. It’s one I selected when – almost thirty years ago – I edited an anthology of what I called “metaphorical teaching stories” from a diversity of cultural and historical sources. I do not recall the origin of this particular story, but I do remember its basic outlines.

A man of a philosophical bent had been the master of four kingdoms, or four castles, and events transpired so that he lost one of them. A friend approached him to offer consolation: “So sorry to hear of your loss of that kingdom. It must be a terrible blow.” The philosophical fellow replies by asking, “And how many kingdoms do you have?” To which his friend answers, “None.” “Well,” says the philosophical fellow, “thanks for your condolences, but as you have no kingdoms and I have still three of them, it seems unnecessary to offer your sympathy for my loss. If anything, it is I who should offer you my sympathy.”

At the time that I chose it for my anthology, I thought the philosopher’s view to be essentially wise. But I’ve come since to understand that it is the friend who better understands human nature. For we are wired, it seems, and psychological research into happiness suggests, to be sensitive to CHANGES in the goodness of our circumstances, and to become rather quickly adjusted to new levels when they stabilize – whether it is a matter of ceasing to be depressed when calamity strikes us or ceasing to be elated when some great windfall improves our fortunes.

The man who has gone from four to three kingdoms is indeed more in need of condolence than the man who has had no kingdoms all along. (Perhaps, indeed, it is because that man was in pain that he snippily repaid his friend’s heartfelt concern about him with a snooty lecture that put his friend down.)

I think of that story, and of my second perspective on it, because we are like that philosophical man who has lost – or is certainly in danger of losing – one (or more?) of his kingdoms.

We have been extraordinarily fortunate human beings, we citizens of the United States of America. Prosperous and free, living in a decent society – well off, even blessed, by any of the standards of human history.

But now we face the prospect – though, I still believe, not the certainty – that we are in the process of forfeiting some of the extraorinary specialness of our birthright, some portion of our many kingdoms of good fortune.

And it is this downward slide – this diminution of our blessings – that causes us to suffer. A change for the worse is what we’re wired to experience with pain.

That is the lesson of the man of supposed philosophical bent who lost a portion of his domain.

There’s something else I find in the story of the lost kingdoms. Not only does it seem to illuminate the nature of our suffering. It also, I feel, clarifies for me some of the spiritual challenge I face when I contemplate the possibility that we may indeed be losing something precious.

It brings into focus that what this calamity we lament signifies – if things work out as we fear – is that we are simply in the process of joining more fully than before into the general lot of humankind.

If our fears are realized, we are headed toward life under less privileged conditions: A less healthy political system than Americans have generally known. A less healthy balance between the wealthy and powerful few and the rest of the population. A loss of the rule of law to a fully opportunistic grab for power. A population that cannot see what is right in front of their eyes. A public realm in which hardly any of the necessary conversation is going on.

Nothing unusual, historically, about any of that. The danger, in other words, is that we may come to live embedded at a level of corruption and injustice and dishonesty that has been rather the rule in human civilizations much of the time. We may get a taste of the darkness of times of which there have been so many. We Americans – so very privileged in comparison – have not appreciated how good we had it, in the context of human historical experience.

And I notice that it is hard for me to accept the idea that I and my country might have to endure more of what other, countless peoples in history have had to. Like the Native Americans when the Spanish came, and then in a different way when the Anglos came. Or like the coming of disorder of the process which went from the Roman Empire to the Dark Ages. Maybe not so dark as those, but requiring adjustments of that kind.

It is hard for me to accept, just as it would be hard for me to accept learning that I had a fatal cancer. But in just that way I can feel consoled to recognize that there’s a spiritual gift to be had here: to embrace the deep truth that there’s no reason why I or We should be exempt from the general lot of human kind.

Just as it is a challenge to accept my own mortality, and the vulnerability of my flesh, so also to relinquish my generally unconscious sense of entitlement, according to which the nightmares of history should happen elsewhere than where I live.

There’s a gift to be had, I think, in recognizing that life has not promised me (or my “Us”) any rose garden.

And then there’s the sense that even when some of the kingdoms are stolen away, there remains a space in which well-being and goodness can be grown.

This may be said to be the lesson of the man in the story who had no kingdoms, and never had. Not that those kingdoms are unimportant. But that even without them the human spirit can find a way toward what is ultimately of importance.

A great many people, living in dark times, have managed to nurture little islands of meaning and value in the nooks and crannies of their disordered worlds. Gardens behind walls. The copying of illuminated manuscripts within the monasteries. Richness of culture growing in the cracks of the asylum or the prison.

Even when the world grows dark, there are people who find ways to maintain the light.

I do grieve the possible loss of kingdoms. But these thoughts help me to see beyond the grief to the ways that, even if the future bears out my fears and not my hopes, the flame that matters most can still find ways to burn.
 
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A minority will always feed the majority.



 
July 03, 2007
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