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I lay awake all night. I read bits of "Lanark" by Alasdair Gray, which is extremely good but also disturbing. Then I got up and wrote the following. Note that I heavily rely on theological language, the reason for this being, certain things are very difficult to talk about without this vocabulary, but please rest assured I am the same agnostic I've always been.
If I work in such a way that I am unlikely ever to finish, is it because the work itself is not well suited to being finished, or is it a case of adaptation? Have I adapted to being in the particular phase of the work that I am in, and therefore wish to prolong it, without moving particularly forward or backward, or at all?
The idea occurred to me that shy people are really frightened of conversation because they want much more from it. For the person to whom conversation is a kind of anasthesia from solitude then nothing is offered, nothing is expected, and therefore, nothing is feared. But the person who hopes that a conversation might change their life is asking every person they meet for far more than they can justifiably expect, certainly far more than they deserve; therefore, they are “shy”, that is, terrified, like a child asking not for a lolly or a day off school but a hundred pounds for no reason.
But this has an unfortunate consequences because all the best conversations are actually very easy, light, perhaps not empty… sometimes there is a fearful rushing, an extraordinary intensity with the pull of a strong current that one cannot resist and doesn’t want to, but it is not created, it is a gift, it is created in the process.
At one time the sound of the change from C major to A minor sounded so wonderful to me that I hoped for nothing more than to be able to perform the change readily and effortlessly. Now I can do it without thinking but I can’t remember why it was wonderful. I am certain the reason for this is more profound than merely the economic maxim of diminishing returns. The law of diminishing returns is just a way of saying that we’re all Sisyphus… which might help explain why he doesn’t stop pushing the rock up the hill.
There’s something about Salvation. Working by the Steindl-Rast theology, where the kingdom of god is a state of grace in this life, that is an eternity that we live in, not die into, then nothing is more important than salvation. I think most of us spend a lot of time in the opposite state, which I suppose is damnation, or being in hell, but we work frightfully hard, like Sisyphus, to distract ourselves from the fact that we are in hell. When I sit down at a sheet of blank paper and have nothing to write it is an acute reminder that I am outside the kingdom of God. A reminder that I lack grace, that I cannot achieve salvation by my own efforts. It is painful and humiliating. I do not want to be unsaved and know that I am unsaved. Ignorance is not bliss, unless bliss is merely being ignorant of one’s own unhappy feelings. It seems like vast amounts of human effort are devoted to avoiding being aware of unhappy feelings, avoiding being aware of alienation, looking away from our own suffering and the suffering of others.
I think what really makes me hate my bete noir is that he does the same thing to me, reminds me powerful and unavoidable of how thoroughly worthless my efforts to be good are. I can learn the rules, follow the rules, give every appearance of being a good and virtuous and considerate person, and yet he asks of me so little, such a little respect and consideration and affection, that in denying him I am reminded that I am still a selfish brute, and all my good manners are there principally to prevent me from being reminded of the fact. Like I said above of people who use conversation to anaesthetize themselves from the effects of solitude, so I use good “unselfish” behaviour to anaesthetize myself from an unpleasant awareness that I am a cruel, selfish brute. I am a monster.
But of course “I am a monster” doesn’t ring true. I am simply a human being, and despite all my efforts to be better than other people, “self improvement” is a disguise for baseless vanity, and being a monster would just be another way to justify a different kind of vanity. How disgusting it is to think that other people might have felt the feelings that I’ve felt, done the things that I’ve done, described the symptoms of my illness! I am determined to be sick in a fashion that no-one else has ever been sick before, but at the same time want my illness validated by the recognition of others… oblique, dishonest ways of avoiding life, avoiding the heart of the matter. Bad faith.
There is real salvation, there is a real possibility, but the way to it seems to be too hard… the alienated fantasy says that I might have hope if only I am strong enough to conquer my reaction to sitting before a blank page, or strong enough to give without complaint whatever it is that my bete noir asks of me. But what comes through the exercise of a more willful will is not salvation but self-improvement, which is really just a way to get very tired of the effort one must constantly make to animate the puppet which displays all the correct feelings, says all the correct words… and underlying it all the feel ever-growing resentment of those who do not share this stupid self-imposed burden. The only way to be really saved is… putting it in words seems to be wrong. Like Merton’s death, that he would be imposing on to attempt to understand in advance. I can say what needs to be done, to be given grace, I can describe it as a ritual, a formula, a kind of obscure or oblique devotion, but what is missing from the description of the ritual is the ritual’s effect. What is needed is to stay with the blank sheet of paper until one is no longer able to avoid the fact that one is in a state of being unsaved, to be brought face-to-face with the truth that there is no way to achieve salvation. There is no mastery here. There is no waiting until the truth is nearly on you, and then pouncing on it just before it arrives, and announcing it as an acheivement. So many clever tricks to tackle it with turn out to be just another case of bad faith, just another attempt to argue law and rules with the darkness inside a cave, with something that makes all that irrelevant. Entering into the specific hell you are in, by not getting up and making another cup of tea, by not turning away or getting the paper or deciding the room needs to be clean before you can begin, not by being strong but by staying long enough to come face-to-face with how weak, how totally weak and inadequate you are… then grace comes.
And it always comes then. It is not begrudged. It is suddenly amazing how easy it really is. “Ask and you shall receive”. What Jesus doesn’t mention (I suppose it ought to be obvious) is that you can pretend to ask and pretend to receive, but you’ll still be in the same boat you were in before. You have to ask. Ask and you shall receive, but don’t try to trick the giver of grace. Don’t pretend to ask, don’t pay with false humility and expect to get paid in real forgiveness. It has to be the real thing. But if you do, if you can, if it happens, then what a wonderful lightening of the spirit it is! How clear and simple everything suddenly is! How possible life appears now, how likeable our fellow men, how silly and improbable the world of hell! In the kingdom of god it appears that everyone else has already arrived, or is just about to make it in. They don’t realize it yet, maybe. Maybe they think they’re running away as fast as they can, but ha! The joke’s on them! The kingdom of heaven isn’t in any particular place, and particular ideology, any particular series of events that one can run away from or toward or through or to; it’s right here! Yes, almost here is the same thing as being here when you understand time in the right way; like an iceberg that is mostly invisible, the apparent part of time, that we wait through while watching a clock, or look back on at the end of the day and wonder where it’s gone to, is like a shadow of the real time, the time that passes here, which is called Eternity, and does not pass away or come to be, except that it sustains us and makes us live and always knowing that this forgiveness is our home. We do not try to explain the miracle, the mystery, that we love as it is love, that we worship gladly, that is… does it seem to be lost in abstractions? It’s funny, very funny, because of course the words that describe it best don’t belong to any particular place or person, and yet they are everwhere. They are very specific. The kingdom of god is in the grain of the desk, the kingdom of god is in the feel of a keyboard, the kingdom of god is in the hum of a heater, the movement of a makeshift curtain, the strange harsh cries of a bird, and all these things that might have been used as a map, as a list of descriptors in a dichotomous key, become embodiments of a love that inhabits them, sustains them, makes them possible…
I wonder, how do we sustain the illusion that things are possible without love? A great deal of work, of course, work that is only possible because of love. Funny, funny both in the sense of mad and humorous.
"Somebody saved me
It happenned again" - Pete Townshend
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