28 September 2014

Anxiety and its Contents

She asked if I had anxiety?
I responded. “Of course I have anxiety. I grow anxious about the children’s well-being, and I am concerned about my work and about my health. I worry about the state of my children and the state of the world. I worry about climate change and I worry about my mother suffering from dementia. I worry about racism and the rise again of anti-Semitism in the world. And I worry about the children. I worry that the Republicans will in the elections gain control over the Congress, and I worry that my children will suffer as a result. Do I have anxiety? Of course I do!
Who doesn’t suffer from anxiety in this world. Of all the sane men I have met and considered, Henry David Thoreau has always seemed to me as one of the sanest. His Walden has served me for a long time as a guide for the perplexed by one who had found his way out of the confusion. He writes in the Conclusion: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” and I have always identified that ‘he’ with Thoreau.  But I think now that this identification is misleading. There is a difference between Walden’s narrator and the mythological man it has spawned in the imagination. Though Thoreau’s time at Walden was a glorious experiment, it did not produce a man free of the world or from an anxiety that derives from living in it. I offer only three instances:
            In “Higher Laws” Thoreau writes: “If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he seems not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.” Thoreau’s choice to describe his individuality as producing not what appears to be insanity but which is insanity suggests to me his acknowledgement of this state in himself. A man may indeed, not keep pace with his companions, but it might be a result of “even insanity” that would lead him thus. There is not a little hint of anxiety in Thoreau’s description.
            He writes also in “Higher Laws” that the world is enough to intoxicate the minds of men and women and that water suffices as the only necessary liquor. Unlike me, Thoreau eschews spoiling his morning with “a cup of warm coffee.” He rejoices that in the absence of coarse labors he does not require the consumption of coarse foods. But then he acknowledges, “But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects. I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent.” I hear disquiet and even disappointment in these words. There is not acceptance in his tone but discontent that must surely have led to moments of failure and a resultant anxiety.
            Finally, in “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” Thoreau describes Breed’s hut, which seems to have been set on fire by some mischievous boys one Election night. “I lived on the edge of the village then,” he says, and so he was not at Walden, “and had just lost myself over Davenant’s Gondibert, that winter that I labored with a lethargy . . .” What else but a form of anxious paralysis could Thoreau be experiencing? He attributes the state to hereditya family complaintor to his “attempt to read Chalmers’ collection of English poetry with skipping,” But I am certain that what he here admits to is the condition that has led to the ubiquity in our modern day society of psychotropic drugs to treat depression.
Do I have anxiety? Who doesn’t who lives in this world? But Thoreau teaches me that despite this human conditionwhich he certainly sharedwe are not condemned by it. In imagery I have elsewhere explored, Thoreau declares that he means to journey not in cabin passage, but rather “to go before the mast and on the deck of the world . . .”  It was just such a motive that led Ishmael to board the Pequod to cure him of his own hypos. It was just such an attitude that kept Bulkington at sea to keep from crashing upon the Lee Shore.

To be alive is to invite anxiety, and learning to live with iteven creativelyis living.         

13 September 2014

Why Beans?

I have been thinking again of Thoreau’s bean field. I was intrigued at Thoreau’s question at the opening of the chapter: “But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows!” On the one hand he seems to be seeing “why beans?” Acknowledging that he also planted corn and potatoes, the largest part of his garden (the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted”), Thoreau asks, why did I plant beans? ”Not that I wanted beans to eat, for I am by nature a Pythagorean, so far as beans are concerned, whether they mean porridge or voting”), though he did eat some of them. Nor did he grow his beans as a source of steady income. By his own accounting he made very little profit from harvest of beans, corn and potato, and before the harvest the woodchucks had “nibbled for me a quarter to an acre clean.” It was not the yield Thoreau sought.
But on the other hand, his question asks something else: why did I do anything? He concedes that he loves his beans, that the work with them attaches him to the earth, and that he gains strength from what he refers to as his “curious” labor.
Why grow beans? Was it that he just needed something to do? Thoreau never lacks for activity; and his garden contains only beans, potatoes and corn, the former he prefers not to eat and the latter produce insufficient variety for even Thoreau. I am not certain that Thoreau ever provides a clear answer to this question But why should I raise them . . . What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” But perhaps the answer to the question is contained within it: that in the activity he would come to learn something he could not know in the absence of the activity. Why beans? Who knows? It is a curious activity. It seems appropriate to Thoreau’s life at Walden to plant and sow, but I do not think that the beans have any intimate connection to Thoreau’s life at Walden, though perhaps the bean-field does have such connection! It is the planting and care of beans, in the activity, that Thoreau discovers great merit. “I was determined to know beans,” and his activity in their planting, growth and harvest occupies him, though it is clear that at times he, as do we all, resented the work.  It is, after all, a battle against the weeds, “those Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on their side.” Thoreau plays Achilles in conflict with the crest-waving Hector weeds.
The answer to why he should raise them is that working in the bean-field is consistent with where he lived and what he lived for. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practices resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” Heaven only knows why he planted beans: but he planted them as part of his experiment, and they offered him something to learn. “This further experience also I gained. I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer . . .” That is, in his desire to confront only  the essential facts of life he had to learn in what labors to engage. But first he had to engage in the labor! And if he was going to learn what was life and what wasn’t, then he had to commit completely to the labor at hand. And though he doesn’t consume his beans, “I came to love my rows, me beans, though so many more than I wanted.” It was the labor and not the result.
But while he labors, ah, he thinks. There is not much information concerning beans per se in the chapter, though in his work with the beans Thoreau learns a great deal. He planted beans “perchance, as some must work in fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day.” And isn’t Walden, ah, not exactly a parable, but the record of a life lived consciously every minute even in its disappointments. Everything Thoreau does offers the opportunity for thought. s in an earlier chapter, “Solitude,” Thoreau says, “We are the subject of an experiment which is not a little interesting to me.” His life at Walden was part of his experiment, and the bean-field was important to that life.
Thoreau does not realize his dream, I think he would acknowledge that no one finally can do so. Else what are dreams for? John Dewey will say that an experiment that turns out exactly as expected was hardly an experiment from which anything cold be learned. But Thoreau will say that if we march in the direction of our dreams we will realize a success unimagined in our daily lives. And perhaps our bean-fields are an aspect of that experiment in our lives. “Most men I do not meet at all, for they seem not to have time; they are busy about their beans.” And in the life devoted to getting, Thoreau suggests, they are losing the time.

Why beans? Why anything? Because there must be something!

08 September 2014

Strangers in our midst

            In the parashah Ki Teitzei Torah says, “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman . . . .”  The Edomites are the descendants of Esau, and I have feltand still experience great sympathy for him. His plea, “Have you no blessing for me, Father?’ breaks my heart. And Torah records that when they meet across the Jabbok, it is Esau who falls on Jacob’s neck and kisses him, but there is no sense that Jacob reciprocates the greeting. And then, having refused to travel along with Esau to his home where Esau says that a great feast has been prepared, Jacob breaks his word to visit with his brother and his family, and heads with his entourage in the other direction. (I have also wondered why it was that Jacob traveled throughout the wide desert in a path that would cross that of his brother.) Esau waits in vain and I suspect in pain. Torah says I cannot abhor the Edomite because he is my kinsman; though interestingly Jacob’s behavior displays abhorrence for his Edomite kinsman! Wouldn’t Esau’s invitation to Jacob be a better example of the behaviors Torah advocates? I am, in fact, fond of Esau.
            Torah continues: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” It has been suggested that Torah counsels us that though we were brutally enslaved, treated unbearably in slavery, and experienced the attempt at genocide and subject to unthinkable cruelty, we must not hate the Egyptians. And I think that it was suggested that to hold onto a hatred of the Egyptians would be to hate ourselves. We do not necessarily have to forgive, but we can not hate!
            But I don’t get a sense in this parashah that Torah advocates that I give up hatred. For right before the verses about the Edomites and Egyptians the Torah says, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, none of their descendants, even in the 10th generation shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water in your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam, so of Beor. You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live . . .” Well, to me that sounds like holding on to hate—and I won’t here address the statements about the Amalekites at the end of the parashah. The remarkable contradiction: You shall wipe out their memory, followed by the command, “do not forget.” Perhaps the latter commandment refers to not forgetting that we should wipe them out of our memory, but clearly in this case we do not let go of hate—every enemy of the Jewish people is linearly linked to Amalek. And how can we remember the deed and forget the perpetrator? Would it be to accept an eternal presence of evil in the world even in the absence of its locus anywhere specific?
            So I have been wondering what else can Torah mean by commanding that we shall not abhor an Egyptian, for we were strangers in his land! For one, perhaps it is that the experience of slavery defined our freedom and this must remain always in our hearts and minds. Without the experience of slavery and the liberation in the exodus we would not know the difference between slavery and freedom. Further, the experience of slavery defined our ethic: because we were strangers we must be especially sensitive to the strangers in our midst and to those others who are in most in need—the widow and the orphan and the stranger. It is the contiguity of the phrase “for you were a stranger in his land” that suggests to me that it is for this reason that we must not hate the Egyptian: though it is clear that the Egyptians did not care for the stranger when they made slaves of the Israelites. That they did not learn this lesson led to their drowning in the Red Sea. And of course, to have slaves is to enslave oneself to at least an ethic that degrades the slaveholder and denies them the enjoyment of a full life. I wonder how different Jefferson’s life might have been had been able to acknowledge his relationship with Sally Hemings? And didn’t Pharaoh’s daughter know that the child she discovered in the basket must have been a Jewish child, and I wonder how that experience altered forever her existence in the palace and her relationship with her father. I would not want my relationship with my daughters to exist on such a falsehood.
            Freedom from slavery marked the beginning of the Israelites as ‘a people,’ but it is the experience of slavery that seems to me to lie at the very base of Jewish ethics. Because we were strangers (not slaves the Torah emphasizes here but ‘strangers’) we must be especially concerned with the stranger in our midst and treat them as equals. There should be one law for you and the stranger! In an ironic way, I am thinking that Jews have come to define define ourselves not as former slaves but as a result of our experience of slavery. We had to become free to practice the ethic that was learned as a result of being slaves. The experience of slavery and the exodus defined the Jews as a people.  Why else would the phrase concerning the care of strangers in our midst appear 36 timestwo times chai. Without slavery there is no freedom.
            Does that mean we should all be slaves for a spell so that we might understand freedom? I think not: the stories of slavery are sufficient experience. Perhaps that might be an argument for the importance of immersion in the humanities: that we study the experiences and feelings of others, and to my mind I have read nowhere an account of slavery that portrays it as socially and/or personally edifying. It is abhorrent everywhere though it has been, and yet continues to be practiced. And if accountability is today our governing ethic, and if accountability is measurable, then I think that the very nature of the founding ethic of Judaism—caring for the stranger, widow and orphanis empty. You must not go back into your fields to retrieve what was originally missed; the corners of the field must be left available for the stranger to glean, and there is no measure for how big a corner might be.
            What is the difference between the Egyptians and the Moabites and the Ammonites? The latter deprives us of food and drink when we were hungry and thirsty and we asked for sustenance. They denied concern for the strangers in their midst. The Moabites and the Ammonites are the United States in the years that followed the Civil War and up to the present. But the Egyptians taught us what it feels like to be a stranger.

01 September 2014

A Thousand Simple Tests

I am made so happy reading again Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The rhythm of his sentences move with my breath, or it is that as I flow through his sentences I experience a quiet and calmness that I enjoy in very few other instances in my anxious life. I can be with Walden anywhere. 
            He writes in “Economy’: “We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours.” I like that the verb Thoreau employs is a clear active one and not the vague verb ‘know,’ though I understand ‘try’ to mean ‘to know.’ There are so many ways to measure our existences; to consider our lives; to accept that we live. Thoreau calls these ways simple tests though they seem to me to have little in common with the high stakes testing and accountability measures that pervade our society. These ‘tests’ of which Thoreau speaks are ways of recognizing that we are alive, that we exist, and that the universe is not opposed to us! These tests are not summative or judgmental, nor are they even formative and developmental. These tests are the measure of the Now, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.” These tests are the measure of our life’s openness and not the measure of how open are our lives. Carrie Newcomer sings, “The wise men say, there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground!” Thoreau’s thousand tests are the measure of our joys. Though Thoreau’s neighbors’ question his life-choices, their questions are really answers and hence, judgments about his life; Indeed, many of our questions are nothing but answers and often are attacks on the choices others that us have made. These judgments derive from the uncoupling of the two eternities.
            As an example of how we might try our life by a simple test Thoreau offers this: that if we were to ‘consider’ that our existences are merely part of a vast universeThoreau intentionally uses the plural ‘earths’andconsider’ that in our lives we were only a part of Nature, neither isolate nor extraordinary; and ‘consider’ that what we experience belongs to us as our experience, even as the experience of others belongs to them; and ‘consider’ that what we know as our realities are experienced everywhere and elsewhere by others the same and different than us; and ‘consider’ that whatever I see exists only as my individual perspective; then we live wholly present.

            And then Thoreau (to my mind) remarkably adds: “If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes.” Not all his errors, but certainly ‘some mistakes.’ I admire his honesty. There really are so many ways to live life.