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Posts Tagged ‘Bahá’u’lláh’

Given my involvement in the local Death Cafe my interest in this piece from the Bahá’í Teachings website should come as no surprise. Justin Baldoni almost makes death seem positively exciting! Click link to  go to the original post.

Actor and My Last Days creator Justin Baldoni explains why he believes he was born to play a part in helping people transition from this world to the next. What if birth and death are actually the same? Justin asks that important question—maybe the most important question imaginable. He describes the birth of his daughter, passing through a dark tunnel into the light, and realizes he will one day greet her joyously once more, when she passes from this world to the next. He wonders whether the prophets of God—Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Baha’u’llah—described death as a beautiful, spiritual transition because they knew where we’re all going. Then, Justin asks one more question: What are you spending your time developing?

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© Bahá’í World Centre

A co-operation game: © Bahá’í World Centre

Exponents of the world’s various theological systems bear a heavy responsibility not only for the disrepute into which faith itself has fallen among many progressive thinkers, but for the inhibitions and distortions produced in humanity’s continuing discourse on spiritual meaning. To conclude, however, that the answer lies in discouraging the investigation of spiritual reality and ignoring the deepest roots of human motivation is a self-evident delusion. The sole effect, to the degree that such censorship has been achieved in recent history, has been to deliver the shaping of humanity’s future into the hands of a new orthodoxy, one which argues that truth is amoral and facts are independent of values.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We now need to move from considering how empathy and entropy interact to looking at Jeremy Rifkin’s Emp Civilunderstanding of levels of consciousness.

I have already had a bit of a rant, in a previous post, about Rifkin’s treatment of this topic (page 182):

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

At times he hopefully throws labels at his hypothetical levels and then tries to make them stick with the glue of his speculations. However there are enough valuable insights housed in his wobbly tower-block to make exploring it more fully well worthwhile.

He draws initially on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model (page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

It is not just parental practices that are critical here but cultural norms as well. Sometimes even cultures that pride themselves on their occupation of the moral high ground can poison empathy in its cradle (page 121):

Ironically, while a shaming culture pretends to adhere to the highest standards of moral perfection, in reality it produces a culture of self-hate, envy, jealousy, and hatred towards others. . . . . When a child grows up in a shaming culture believing that he must conform to an ideal of perfection or purity or suffer the wrath of the community, he is likely to judge everyone else by the same rigid, uncompromising standards. Lacking empathy, he is unable to experience other people’s suffering as if it were his own …

He quotes examples such as how a victim of rape (page 122):

. . . bears the shame of the rape, despite the fact that she was the innocent victim. As far as her family and neighbours are concerned, she is forever defiled and impure and therefore an object of disgust to be blotted out.

It is after these clarifications of the basics that Rifkin begins to explain his full model (page 154):

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

After briefly relating early cultures to early childhood (page 162) and suggesting that initially, in the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason ‘empathetic consciousness developed alongside disembodied beliefs,’ he refers to three stages of human consciousness (page 176): ‘theological, ideological, and early psychological.’ In his view during these stages ‘bodily experience is considered either fallen, irrational, or pathological’ and ‘moral authority’ is therefore ‘disembodied.’

However, this all changes with a further enhancement of ‘empathic consciousness.’ While ‘embodied experience is considered to be… at odds with moral laws, there will always be a gap between what is and what ought to be human behaviour’ he argues. ‘Empathic consciousness overcomes the is/ought gap. Empathic behaviour is embodied . . . .’ This is a large leap of logic to which we will need to return later when we look at other ways of decoding the components of empathy.

He helps his argument by unpacking exactly what he is getting at a few pages later (pages 273-74):

Hatred of the body could hardly endear one to another flesh-and-bones human being. Embodied experience is the window to empathic expression. . . . Empathy is the celebration of life, in all of its corporeality. Not paradoxically, it is also the means by which we transcend ourselves.

He strongly relates what he feels is a fuller expression of empathy (page 366) to ‘psychological consciousness,’ something rooted in the ‘coming together of the electricity revolution with the oil powered internal combustion engine.’ He goes on:

While earlier forms of consciousness – mythological, theological, and ideological – were still in play all over the world and within each psyche to various degrees, the new psychological consciousness would come to dominate the 20th century and leave its mark on every aspect of human interaction and on virtually every social convention. With psychological consciousness, people began to think about their own feelings and thoughts, as well as those of others in ways never before imaginable.

Psychological Consciousness & the God Issue

It is in the 1890s, interestingly at exactly the same time as Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was publically and fully explaining the Bahá’í Revelation, that Rifkin perceives another potential pitfall emerging, in addition to entropy, that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

He concludes that this was not all bad though (ibid.):

. . . . The shift from being a good character to having a good personality had another, more positive impact. People began to pay more attention to how their behaviour affected others. In the process, they came more mindful of other people’s feelings.

He refers (page 411) to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a theory we will be looking at more closely when I come to examine in a later sequence of posts Medina’s take on personal and societal development. He relates it to the stages “one goes through to develop a mature empathic sensitivity.”

He then moves into similar territory to Wilber in privileging a Western mode of experiencing the world. He states (page 414):

While in developing countries theological consciousness is still the dominant mode of expression, and in the middle range of developed countries ideological consciousness is the most prevalent form of public expression, in the most highly developed nations of the world, psychological consciousness has gained the upper hand, even to the extent that it partially interprets and remakes the older forms of consciousness into its own image.

is-god-a-delusionThis default assumption that somehow a belief in God in inherently a more primitive take on the world that must hold development back is as dangerous and as ultimately unsubstantiable as the delusion that everything can be explained in material terms. This steers Rifkin away from looking at the potential role of religion as a positive force, something I will return to later.

The crucial issue in my view is rather the same as Eric Reitan’s as expressed in his book Is God a Delusion?: what matters is what kind of God we believe in. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.

Deciding whether your concept of God fulfills that criterion is probably easier said than done as Gilles Kepel illustrates in his book, Jihad: the trail of political Islam, when he refers to Qutb and his followers arguing that (page 25-26):

The Muslims of the nationalist period were ignorant of Islam, according to Qutb; just like the pagan Arabs of the original jahiliyya [original state of ignorance before Muhammad] who worshipped stone idols, Qutb’s contemporaries worshiped symbolic idols such as the nation, the party, socialism, and the rest. . . . Within Islam, Allah alone has sovereignty, being uniquely worthy of adoration by man. The only just ruler is one who governs according to the revelations of Allah.

The problem remains. What is the ruling conception of Allah we should adopt and what exactly has He revealed that should guide our conduct? What interpretation of the Qu’ran is to be devoutly followed? This question is of course blurred by the issue of the hadith and sharia, lenses through which the Qu’ran has been variously interpreted by different schools and periods of Islam.

Robert Wright seems to be singing from roughly the same hymn sheet as Reitan. He has bravely tackled the issue of religion from a sympathetically evolutionary perspective. One of his most trenchant insights is (The Evolution of God page 439):

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.’

As I will explain below he does not simplistically conclude that all religion should be tarred with that brush.

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

Globalisation

Interacting with the development of psychological consciousness and instrumental in shaping it, is the impact (page 424) of ‘cyberspace’ where ‘the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face. . . . Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.’

There is also the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):

A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.

Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):

Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.

He argues that (page 429) that ‘2007 marks a great tipping point.’

For the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in the vast urban areas, according to the United Nations – many in mega-cities with suburban extensions – some with populations of 10 million people or more.

He then introduces what for him is another key concept: cosmopolitanism (page 430):

At the same time, the urbanisation of human life, with its complex infrastructures and operations, has lead to greater density of population, more differentiation and individuation, an ever more developed sense of self, more exposure to diverse others, and an extension of the empathic bond. . . . .

Cosmopolitanism is the name we used to refer to tolerance and the celebration of human diversity and is generally found wherever urban and social structures are engaged in long-distance commerce and trade and the business of building empires.

Robert Wright similarly locates (page 445) the ‘expansion of humankind’s moral imagination’ to the Robert Wrightextension of such connections throughout history. Though a sceptic, he does not dogmatically conclude there is no God and only blind material forces.

. . . . Occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. . . . The existence of a moral order, I’ve said, makes it reasonable to suspect that humankind in some sense has a “higher purpose.” And maybe the source of that higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label “god” in at least some sense of that word.

Because Rifkin does not accept that there is a God of any kind and contends that theology is suspect, he is in need of some other organising principle to motivate us to lift our game. For him this is ‘biosphere consciousness’ (page 432:

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations spend the planet. Cosmopolitans are the early advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. . . .

However, being cosmopolitan is no guarantee we’ll buy the biosphere package (ibid.):

Although admittedly a bit of a caricature, I’m quite sure that a survey of cosmopolitan attitudes would find that the most cosmopolitan in attitudes leave behind them the largest entropic footprint.

If we subtract God from the Bahá’í system of belief, it is clear he shares a central tenet of that Faith (page 443):

We are within reach of thinking of the human race as an extended family – for the very [first] time in history – although it goes without saying that the obstacles are great and the odds of actually developing a biosphere consciousness are less than certain.

A Summary of his Levels

Now I need to quote him at some length to indicate how, rather as Wilber does, he locates the highest levels of consciousness in Western societies (pages 447-450):

As individuals in industrialising and urbanising societies become more productive, wealthy, and independent, their values orientation shifts from survival values to materialist values and eventually post-materialist, self-expression values.

Traditional societies, imperilled by economic hardship and insecurities, tend to be intolerant of foreigners, ethnic minorities, and gays and staunch supporters of male superiority. Populations are highly religious and nationalistic, believing the firm hand of state authority, emphasise conformity, and exhibit a low level of individual self-expression. Because self-expression is low, and empathic extension is shallow and rarely reaches beyond the family bond and kinship relations.

In secular rationalist-societies engaged in the takeoff stage of industrial life, hierarchies are reconfigured away from God’s created order to giant corporate and government bureaucracies. . . . In the process, the individual, as a distinct self-possessed being, begins to emerge from the communal haze but is still beholden to hierarchical institutional arrangements. . . .

Knowledge-based societies, with high levels of individualism and self-expression, exhibit the highest levels of empathic extension. . . . . In fact, the emancipation from tight communal bonds and the development of weaker but more extended associational ties exposes individuals to a much wider network of diverse people, which, in turn, both strengthens one’s sense of trust and openness and provides the context for a more extended empathic consciousness.

Robert Wright’s treatment of a similar theme from a different angle indicates that it is not quite as simple as that. While the Abrahamic faiths have significantly lacked tolerance at key points in their history not all faiths have been the same (page 441):

At the risk of seeming to harp on the non-specialness of the Abrahamic faiths: this expansion of the moral circle is another area in which non-Abrahamic religions have sometimes outperformed the Abrahamics.

Even then though, the whole picture is not dark for the Abrahamic faiths in his view, as he explains in considering the life of Ashoka, the king who converted to Buddhism and instated a tolerant regime (ibid):

. . . Buddhism’s emphasis on brotherly love and charity, rather like comparable Christian emphases in ancient Rome, is presumably good for the empire’s transethnic solidarity. Yet, like the early Islamic caliphate – and unlike Constantine – Ashoka insisted on respecting other religions in the Empire; he never demanded conversion.

He also refers (pages 188 passim) to the interesting case of Philo of Alexandria as a devout monotheistic Jew who saw ‘a deep streak of tolerance in Yahweh.’

Rifkin summarises his understanding of the research by stating (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

There is much more to say on the issue of levels but it will have to wait until the next post on Thursday.

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Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . . [I]t is not a project in which Bahá’ís engage apart from the rest of humanity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality – page 48)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

As we saw in the previous post, Ray and Anderson’s book, The Cultural Creatives, tracks the way that the drops of personal aspiration from millions of separate individuals first combine into several different streams before beginning to converge into a massive river of increasing power.

They quote from many peoples’ diverse stories, illuminating what they have in common. This example is typical of many in its feeling of not belonging (page 101):

‘My family was so happy on the golf course, and gossiping round the pool, but I felt like I was in some plastic prison. I finally took my dad’s rental car and spent all of Sunday at the ocean. Sitting on the cliffs watching the white pelicans soar over the Pacific, I felt like I was finally crawling back inside my own skin, breathing the fresh air, at home.’

When this feeling of isolation eventually gives way to a sense of common purpose with millions of others, an awsome power will be released. The authors retell a version of the myth of Amaterasu Omikami, the Great Mother Sun, who, because of a great hurt, hid herself in a cave and plunged the whole world into darkness until the spirits of all living things each brought a tiny fragment of a mirror with them as they danced and sang outside the cave. When she peeped out to see what was going on, they wanted to be able to lift up all their tiny mirrors at once to reflect back to her in all its glory the brilliance of her light to break her gloomy mood and return her to the heavens. The plan worked (pages 345-346):

The power that can be focused by a compound mirror is vast, while that reflected by uncoordinated individual actions has little effect. . . . [I]solated actions can’t make the kinds of changes that are needed now. . . . Our new story is one that requires ten thousand tellers and ten times more to be inspired by it. Our new face needs ten thousand mirrors, each with a unique angle of vision to catch the creative energy available now.

To achieve this kind of concerted action will not be easy even if we manage to achieve a strong clear sense of our need for it. It has always required great courage and huge sacrifices in the past, for groups of people to combine together to right even a single wrong or lift society to a higher level of understanding about one issue only. People have to do what they are afraid to do. The freedom movement in the States is not alone in providing innumerable examples of this heroism and the power of example is of central importance here (page 124):

You do not ask someone else to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself. But they did the things they feared most – they went to gaol, faced fire hoses and men with clubs, took responsibility for their friends and fellow protesters. It swept them into the deepest fear they  had ever known – but then it lifted them  beyond that fear into a strength and steadfastness they never expected.

The rewards of such courage are beyond price and its long term effects incalculable. Paul Begala testifies to that when he speaks of John Lewis (page 125):

‘I live and work in a place and a time when courage is defined as enduring a subpoena with dignity. So it is humbling to be in the presence of a man who aced down Bull Connor and his attack dogs, armed with nothing more than his courage, his conscience, and his convictions. If that ain’t a hero, I don’t know what is.

A key aspect of this kind of courage is practising what you preach (ibid):

‘Walking your talk.’ In the all-night meetings and councils of the freedom and peace movements, and the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement, this specific insight about social action evolved into an even more basic conviction about living authentically. What you believe in your heart has to match what you do in your life . . . .

There remain other significant problems which, the authors make clear, have dissipated the painstakingly accumulated rivulets of activity in many isolated places before they ever joined all the other brooks to make a stream. These problems pose key questions.

First of all, how do you build on the experience of others who are engaged in basically the same enterprise but in widely separated places. Networks, whose ability to operate is increasingly facilitated by the internet, are part of the answer (page 128):

Most social movements have two arms: the political and the cultural. . . . . . Contrary to the convictions of the political arm, the cultural arm is at least as important, and sometimes far more so, in its effects on the culture. . . . . But the spell-breaking power of the cultural arms takes place in submerged networks.

Secondly, how do you pass down what you have learned to those who come after you? Part of the answer to this second question lies in the power of persistency (page 203):

In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action. Those who need fast results and instant gratification had better go into some other line of work. As a number of Cultural Creatives told us, you have to enjoy the people and the process, and you need the maturity to work in a longer time frame.

Anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a break through, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics (page 109):

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough (page 154):

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.

They pinpoint the missing link (page 187):

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.

And why exactly, in their view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had do the trick (page 227)?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything (page 229): ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.

Rainbow Bodhisattva by Vijali Hamilton

They strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell (page 299):

“You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.” . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of “the grounding mystery of all being,” he said, we have nothing we can really trust.

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton (page 311):

The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.”

This is so close to the idea that the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describes:

“O My servants!” Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, “The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.”

(Shoghi Effendi: The Promised Day is Come – page 16)

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. To use Will Keepin‘s words (page 279):

“The work I’m doing now,” he told us, “is all based on faith.” . . . The crises he went through “led to a whole new gift that I never would have guessed. It developed a quality of trusting in the unknown.”

From a Bahá’í point of view this all makes complete sense. Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed in this book (page 230): ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’ We believe that science and religion are not at odds. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can (page 318): ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’ Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well (page 302): ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’ Their conclusion is (page 314): ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’ (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book (ibid):

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

In our Writings Bahá’ís are described as ‘catalysts.’

What is called for is a spiritual revival, as a prerequisite to the  successful application of political, economic and technological  instruments. But there is a need for a catalyst. Be assured that,  in  spite  of  your  small  numbers,  you  are  the  channels  through which such a catalyst can be provided.

(Universal House of JusticeTurning Point – page 124)

(For more on what being a catalyst means for us see both links.) I think we could learn much from the Cultural Creatives about how to play that part more effectively. Bahá’ís on the other hand have a model of how a world wide network, possessing a clear vision of the oneness of humanity, can strengthen its influence and consolidate its learning with the help of an appropriate organisational structure. There is therefore something significant that Cultural Creatives can learn from us.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandize-ment against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.

(Universal House of Justice: The Promise of World Peace – 1985)

Just as I have drawn immense encouragement and inspiration from reading this account of the Cultural Creatives, which I wholeheartedly recommend, hopefully increasing numbers of people will draw similar inspiration from the Bahá’í community to which I belong. We have a model which contains a crucial missing dimension in the work of many Cultural Creatives – and I don’t mean a belief in God. Many Cultural Creatives share that perspective in their diverse ways. I mean an institutional framework, centred around a vision of unity in diversity, through which to disseminate and consolidate the gains that have been achieved through effortful experience in different places and at different times.

So, definitely read the book but don’t just stop at that. Come and have a look at what we are doing too. There are, almost certainly, Bahá’ís near where you live. We’ll all be immensely more effective working in synchrony.

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Metamorphosis

[We are also facing] a breathtakingly dangerous tipping point for our civilisation and our planet. Our need to discover a way through is the most urgent, most central question of our time.

(Cultural Creatives: Page 236)

In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.

(Op. cit.: page 203)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

Recently I reviewed a book I hadn’t even been looking for before I bought it. It was Where on Earth is Heaven? Towards the end Stedall mentions a couple of books that ignited my interest. The first of these I’ve now finished reading: The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson. I did a post in November as a taster, promising to follow it up if the book as a whole proved as good as its beginning. It did and here’s the follow up.

It’s a fascinating analysis, based on detailed surveys, of how the balance of American culture, and by implication Europe’s as well probably, has shifted since the 60s. There will be much to say about that later.

When I decided to do a full review of the book I thought I’d do just one post and that would be enough. The more I thought about it, the more impossible that seemed. I felt that its compelling fascination would be conveyed better if I took my time. Of course, that could well be the wrong decision and terminal boredom could have set in for everyone else long before I get to the last post on the subject. It’ll be more of a last post in a different sense in that case.

To convey why the book resonated so much with me it made sense to start, not at the beginning of the book, but nearer to the end. It’s towards the end that the authors convey a sense of the exact nature of the cultural change we are all experiencing but from the point of view of the Cultural Creatives.

A Tipping Point

This group, who constitute 25% of the population of America (i.e. about 50 million people), feel we are in a period of transition. The authors call it the Between.

The Between is the time between worldviews, values and ways of life; a time between stories. The transition period, [John] Naisbitt concluded, “is a great and yeasty time, filled with opportunity.” But it is so, he added, only on two critical conditions: if we can “make uncertainty our friend,” and “if we can only get a clear sense, a clear conception, a clear vision of the road ahead.”

(Page 235)

Ray and Anderson (page 236) are cautious and see this period as a ‘dangerous tipping point.’ They describe the position of Cultural Creatives (page 40) as seeing ‘an antique system that is noisily, chaotically shaking itself to pieces.’

This is not all negative (page 33):

. . . this era is at least as much about cultural innovation as it is about decline and decay of established forms.

This, for Bahá’ís, has echoes of what our Teachings repeatedly emphasise. For example:

“Soon,” Bahá’u’lláh Himself has prophesied, “will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.” And again: “By Myself! The day is approaching when We will have rolled up the world and all that is therein, and spread out a new Order in its stead.”

(Shoghi Effendi: The Promised Day Is Come – page 17)

And the similarities don’t end there. They contend (page 244):

The creative response to today’s Between is going to be one that bridges differences. . . . . .

 

Cultural CreativesBuilding Bridges

They draw support from William Ury’s Getting to Peace, which describes pre-agricultural societies as having worked hard at preventing and resolving conflict.

He feels that in our increasingly interdependent world, we have “the most promising opportunity in 10,000 years to create a co-culture of co-existence, cooperation, and constructive conflict.”

This issue of interdependence is key for Bahá’ís as well:

“The well-being of mankind,” [Bahá’u’lláh] declares, “its peace and security are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

(Shoghi Effendi: The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh – page 203)

Ray and Anderson, thinking along the same lines and quoting Mary Ford, write (page 21) :

You have to have a definition of self that’s bigger than [society’s] definitions, that’s grounded in how connected we all are to each other.

The how of course is easier said than done, and we’ll be looking at that in more detail later. They describe at least one of the obstacles very clearly (page 222):

Moderns and Traditionals don’t see themselves as members of an interconnected planetary community, and don’t see their problems as interconnected either.

(We’ll be coming back to Traditionals in the next post.) Whereas Cultural Creatives, and Bahá’ís of course as well, do see themselves very much this way, Cultural Creatives (page 94)

. . .  want to see the big, inclusive picture, and they want to work with the whole system, with all the players. They regard themselves as synthesisers and healers, not just on the personal level but on the planetary level too.

The authors spell out what they feel the fragmentation of the dominant worldview of Modernism means for us all (pages 226-227):

As individuals, we know that we are part of a living system and that what we do to part of that system affects all of us sooner or later. But as a society we don’t know this.

I’m not sure how true the first part is for all individuals but it’s certainly true that our society as a whole has not grasped this holistic view yet. They place much of the blame for this on the fragmented perspective of modernism (page 92), which they see as the dominant worldview in the States, both in terms of the percentage of the population who strongly subscribe to it (48%) and in terms of control of the media:

Cultural Creatives are sick of the fragmentation of Modernism.

Even more damningly they write (page 294):

Modernism lives with a hole where wisdom ought to be.

Cultural Creatives strive for a more integrated perspective.  They think of themselves ‘as an interwoven piece of nature’ (page 9). In ways reminiscent of  Iain McGilchrist’s descriptions (see review on this blog), they have a right-brain feel about them (page 11):

. . . . they want the big picture, and they are powerfully attuned to the importance of whole systems. They are good at synthesing from very disparate, fragmented pieces of information.

The writers quote Parker Palmer approvingly (page 20) when he states:

. . . . that movements begin when people refuse to live divided lives.

But they acknowledge it is hard to see how this can be applied to building a new society (page 64):

. . . we are in the midst of a transition. Mapmakers must be content with seeing the new territory from afar – which means their map will have serious limits.

But we cannot simply leave it there (page 234):

. . . because all of us now are ‘people of the parenthesis,’ as Jean Houston calls us, we must break free of our restricted worldview and make our way into new territory.

And those are the ideas that are developed throughout the book as a whole. Consideration of them must wait till next time.

Bahá’ís share this perspective and these aspirations while recognising that Bahá’ís alone can never bring about such changes:

To say that the process of building a new civilisation is a conscious one does not imply that the outcome depends exclusively on the believers’ initiatives. . . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality – page 109: see review)

It is hugely encouraging to feel that there are up to 50 million people in America alone working towards broadly the same ends, manifesting the spirit of the age

working through mankind as a whole, tearing down barriers to world unity and forging humankind into a unified body in the fires of suffering and experience.

(Universal House of Justice Messages : 1963-1986, page 126)

Even at this stage then it should be clear why I was excited to find this book. Whether I have made it as exciting for you as yet remains to be seen.

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O thou who art attracted by the Fragrances of God!

. . .  I read thy poem, which contained new significances and beautiful words. My heart was dilated by its eloquent sense. I prayed God to make thee utter more beautiful compositions than this.

(Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

It may seem strange resurrecting a post on poetry from 2009 amidst sequences on psychosis. If you are interested to know you’ll need to patience to read on almost to the end!

The BBC Poetry Season currently unfolding is causing me to reflect on why I think poetry matters.

There may be a clue for me in how my interest shifted, when I left the Catholic Church, from poetry to novels as my favourite reading matter. It’s true that my disillusion with religion was influenced by poetry as well: one of my favourite poets at the time was Byron. Others, though were Wordsworth, Coleridge, George Herbert, the Tennyson of In Memoriam and Gerard Manley Hopkins — a spiritually troubled bunch maybe but not exactly godless.

Even though I spent another decade teaching English Literature, my love for poetry remained prematurely buried: occasionally I could hear its finger nails scraping at the coffin lid but put it down to rats behind the skirting boards.

When my career change came and I took up with Psychology you would have thought that would be the end of it. The undead in the coffin should have given up the ghost and turned into a corpse. But strangely enough it didn’t. I threw myself enthusiastically into my new calling and was two years into my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called ‘mentally ill,’ before I had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.

I can’t now recall all the details but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. (This was at a time when I often had to cook the spark plugs in the oven in the morning before the car would start, so at this stage it would’ve been tempting to dismiss the dream as simply revisiting a prosaic daytime anxiety.) When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Instead of the engine there was the most beautiful golden horn — the instrument not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.

When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car in place of the engine?

To cut a long story short, the chain of associations led me from music, creativity and song through the horn of plenty as a pun to Yeats‘ moving poem A Prayer for my Daughter.

It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

(lines 33-32)

(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)

There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a fanatic:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.

(lines 60-65)

There were obvious surface implications here which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?

The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life..

Interestingly my work with ‘psychosis’ helped me do precisely that.

The psychotic experience, looked at from this angle, is all metaphor. Hallucinations are imagery taken literally: delusions are stories mistaken for plain truth. Both hallucinations and delusions are rooted in reality in the same way that poetry and dreams are, and they point towards truths that we might otherwise ignore or cannot otherwise express. They only become dangerous when we unreflectingly act them out in ways that you would never act out a poem and most people do not act out dreams because their motor system has been shut down in sleep.

The great power of poetry is to articulate for us and convey to us the otherwise inexpressible aspects of experience that cry out to be integrated if we are not to die spiritually, emotionally and intuitively. I was rescued by my dream from continuing to disown the creative force of poetry. Reintegrating poetry into my life was a critical step, not only in becoming a better clinician than I would otherwise have been by the aid of psychology alone, but it also led me to a greater openness to the spirituality of Buddhism than I would otherwise have been capable of, which in turn led me to the Baha’i Faith whose poetic and mystical writings  were easier for me to absorb than would have otherwise been the case.

In a very real sense I owe the rich texture of my present life at least in part — and it is a significant part — to poetry.

Yeats wrote:

. . . many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

(lines 38-40)

And in the Bahá’í Writings we are told:

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding….

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh: CXXXII)

They both seem to be speaking of the same appealing quality in their different ways.

That’s why it is so good to know that the BBC is seeking to bring the creative and transformative power of poetry to people who might otherwise be tempted to ignore it.

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M&D wedding

My parents’ wedding

I am republishing this post from 2009 to help explain my need to explore further in the next sequence of posts the impact of trauma.

My visit to the gravesides in Stockport, described in a previous post, triggered a lot of memories. It also reminded me of the sayings that almost always spring to my mind when I am working towards some particular outcome. ‘Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched’ and ‘There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip’ are the two main ones. I have had to learn to enjoy the process of getting there without becoming too anxious about the destination, but even so these two stress-inducing sentences can come bursting through at times of high arousal. Being so concerned about an outcome adversely affects my ability to achieve anything. Understanding better the possible nature of the over-concern helps me to control it.

The life courses of my relatives on my mother’s side gives me some clues as to why the disconcerting mind-tapes might be there. Their unlucky stories were being drip fed into my consciousness as far back as I can remember.

Aunts and Uncles and Such

Uncle Harold, who was 11 in 1901 at the time of the census I looked at, married an Irish girl called Nell. They called their son Richard after Harold’s father. He had some kind of learning problem. By the time I knew anything about him the son was called Dick, and was a very big man, probably in his forties.  Harold’s wife died young and he had to bring his son up alone. His end was very much in character. When he was in his eighties I heard that he had tried to carry two one-hundredweight sacks of coal, one under each arm, back to his house one winter. He succeeded, only to find his legs swelling up soon afterwards. He was diagnosed as having a heart condition. A year or so later he died.

AAAunt Ann, who was eight at the time of the census, was the elder daughter and the second eldest child. Like Uncle Harold, she failed to complete her education: she had to leave school and earn some money to help the family out. I cannot remember what work she did but think it was secretarial. She was a great walker, like Uncle Harold, and played a lot of tennis, I believe. She married my Uncle Joe who was a tailor. He fought in the First World War  and was wounded in the arm (his left, I think). He damaged a nerve which never mended properly and caused him a lot of pain throughout the rest of his life.

They had no children of their own. Aunt Ann had more than one miscarriage. They treated my older sister Mary very much as their own. She used to visit them often and stayed at their house for long periods. Mary died on 11th January 1939, four years before I was born. Aunt Ann was almost as distressed as my parents were. The exact sequence of events at the time of Mary’s death is hard to disentangle because Aunt Ann’s account and my mother’s differ somewhat.

They both agree that Mary died of something they refer to as septic pneumonia. She was twelve years old and Marydied in great discomfort, with foul fluid issuing from her lungs. (Incidentally, watching a programme called The 1940s House, in which a family lived through a re-enactment of the war years for several weeks, made me realise just how traumatic this whole period would have been for everyone including my parents and my older brother, Bill, even if they hadn’t had to cope with Mary’s death near the beginning of it.) In my childhood I received a highly idealised view of Mary from a portrait tinged with almost intolerable sadness that my mother painted in bits and pieces over a long period of years. My father never spoke of her at all, though I know from everything my mother said her death affected him very badly. I tried to capture what I sensed in him in a poem:

I’d creak my way upstairs sometimes and dare
the backroom where my sister, Mary, died
before I was born. ‘Her lungs were putrid
at the end,’ my mother said. ‘I couldn’t bear
to see.’ I’d stand there questioning the air
for traces of some meaning it might hide.
On the wall above the iron bedstead,
fading in his photograph, my father,
his broad shoulders stretching his jacket tight,
held a huge bullcalf by a rope, half-stern,
half-smiling, proud: younger than the grim grey
man I knew – and straighter. Then the thought:
a man that to trench-fire did not bow, the burn
of one small child’s loss bent easily.

To return to my grandparents’ family, the next oldest was Tom, who was five at the time of the census.  I know very little about him and rarely met him. He lived in Stoke by the time I was born and visited us only once that I can remember for Uncle Frank’s funeral. Tom was some kind of engineer or boiler maker. The only things I can remember about him are that his wife had Parkinson’s disease and he nursed her for many long years. By the time I met him she had died and he had remarried.

Uncle Frank’s story is probably the saddest in the whole family. He was the youngest – two at the time of the census. He fought in WW1 as did most of that generation. (When I think of the difficult lives of my uncles and my aunt, it’s tempting to think that the luck of the menfolk at least was all used up in surviving the First World War.)

He survived, returned home and married. He had two or three children. At some point later, he developed a tumour on the brain, which affected his behaviour. His wife attempted to get him permanently hospitalised. My father apparently thwarted this plan by refusing to leave Frank alone at the crucial moment. Frank’s wife then disappeared with the children and he never saw any of them again. He had an operation which cut away part of his skull to remove the tumour. They inserted a plastic flap in the temple area to protect his brain from the pressure of the skin. As time went on the plastic wore away and he knew that when it wore out he would die. I am not quite clear why surgical practice was not able by the time of his death in 1960 to renew the plastic “skull”. When, as a child, I visited him or met him in the street, it was hard to tear my eyes away from the deepening pothole clearly visible on his right temple. It made my interactions with him tense and awkward and I’m sure he sensed this. I was 17 when he died.

The Impact on my Life

Mirzá Mihdí in 1868, aged 20. (For source of image see link)

Mirzá Mihdí in 1868, aged 20. (For source of image see link)

I have often reflected upon the combination of factors which blighted the lives of so many of that family.

Their histories explain the keen sense, with me since childhood, that this life is transitory and our hold upon it weak in the extreme. That feeling has not left me even though modern medicine and the quality of life we enjoy in the developed world has strengthened our ability to postpone death and prolong health.

It has given me a strong sense of fellowship with the bulk of humanity that do not share my good fortune, though I don’t act on that feeling as often or as vigorously as I should. I now regard that inheritance as a gift not a curse, though this wasn’t always my attitude towards it, and perhaps it goes some way towards explaining why I was so drawn to the Faith when I found it and moved by the suffering of its Founding Figures. Having seen at close hand my parent’s suffering over the death of their daughter gave me a porthole to a deeper understanding of Bahá’u’lláh’s pain at the death of His youngest son in the prison city of Acre than I would otherwise have had, I think. It helped me resonate, at the least to some degree, to the magnitude of the sacrifices He made to spread the Word of God with such wisdom, compassion and persistency and spurred me to a pale imitation of it.

I started this post by considering the way in which the suffering of my ancestors might have contributed to my special form of performance anxiety, and have ended with a greater awareness of how much it has probably contributed to my choosing the spiritual path I am striving to tread. A good example of how working towards one goal often brings another quite different one into reality – not so much a slip between cup and lip, then, as an inexplicable transformation, en route, from tea to coffee.

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[S]election is what the egrets teach
on the wide open lawn, heads nodding as they read
in purposeful silence, a language beyond speech.

(White Egrets: page 10)

white-egretsThe other recurrent theme on my blog recently, apart from psychosis, has been death. No surprise then that I’m going to use that as an excuse to re-publish this post from 2010. Still, I’m glad it gives me another opportunity to plug one of my favourite poets.

For those with little enthusiasm for poetry my current obsession must be getting somewhat tedious. However, I can’t quite let go of it without one more post at least on the subject.

Walcott has just produced a short collection called White Egrets, a series of beautiful meditations on old age, ageless works of art, loss, love and the beauties of nature. Not a big ask then at the age of eighty. It is no coincidence that egrets rhymes almost perfectly with regrets.

Derek Walcott is one of my favourite poets. He is an  inspirational figure whose identity cuts across so many cultural boundaries. His reputation as a poet has thankfully survived the personal innuendoes of the election campaign for the 2009 Oxford professor of poetry contest: I won’t explore here the conflicts inherent between an artist’s life and his art – there’s more than enough on this blog already. Suffice it to say, his poetry is far more accessible than that of Geoffrey Hill, the winner of the 2010 election for that post, whose verse is, to put it mildly, maddeningly and elusively allusive. (It is good to see that since this post was first written Walcott has been awarded the T S Eliot prize.)

The Guardian quotes Adrian Mitchell disapprovingly when he said, “[M]ost people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. I’m with Mitchell on this and am happy to say that Walcott is a great poet who writes for everyone.

Obviously he’s not the first poet to tackle the experience of old age in his verse. Yeats had more than one idea about it. He looks at the power of art to offset mortality in Sailing to Byzantium.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence . . . .

(W. B. Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium)

In 1934 the Steinach rejuvenation operation has a less exalted effect on him:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

(W.B.Yeats: Politics)

If we want to find out how bleak old age can be, then most poetry enthusiasts would agree that Thomas Hardy is a good place to start. And we would not be disappointed if we took their advice.

Strozzi: Old Woman at the Mirror

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

(Thomas Hardy)

There are shades of the late Janáček here, to my ear at least.

Those with more faith than he had will have noticed the comfortless notion of ‘endless rest.’ Hardy’s pessimism may be courageous but that does not, of course, make it true: nor does it make a deluded coward out of every believer as some of the evangelical atheists would have us think.

Shakespeare’s approach is more measured and more stately perhaps because he had fewer years behind him and also the sonnet tradition of his time was not used as a medium for baring all the agonies of your soul.

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest . .

(Sonnet 28)

That word ‘rest’ again. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that George Herbert drew out the power that word has over our minds in his brilliant poem, The Pulley. I quote it in full. The implication is that weariness is the pulley that will hoist man up to God. The background idea, adding to the layers of meaning, is Pandora’s ‘box,’ a mistranslation, as Herbert would have been aware, of the word in the original Greek meaning ‘jar.’

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

This is reminiscent of the Bahá’í view.

O SON OF MAN! Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Arabic Hidden Words: No. 40)

So, after all that, how does Walcott sound?

He’s a modern poet so his music sounds somewhat different, but his roots go deep into the tradition from which I’m quoting as well as drawing on the very different cultural influences of St Lucia.

Perhaps the most striking difference between his treatment of this theme and the poets I have quoted is his humour:

. . . . . . . . . In the cool lobby
the elderly idle. I was now one of them.
Studying the slow, humped tourists was my only hobby,
racked now by a whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm.

(page 33)

And these are not isolated touches. There are many more, of which the most outrageous is the pun in these lines about the British Empire:

He hears the mocking cannonade of battle
from the charging breakers and sees the pluming hordes
of tribesman galloping down the hills of sand
and hears the old phrase “Peccavi. I have Sind.”

(page 41)

He also has command of the elegaic tone:

. . . . . . . I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy. This is the bearable truth
of old age; . . . . .

(page 29)

You will not find such a flood of half-rhymes as these poems display – ‘treacherous’/’errors’, ‘else’/’bells’ – in the older poetry we saw earlier, but here their lack of full closure adds to the melancholy of his musings. Ironically, only ‘truth’ and ‘youth’ rhyme fully.

In Barcelona his own aging is echoed in that of his friend, Robert Antoni:

. . . . you take time in portions
one cough at a time, your personal thunder
that turns compassionate heads.

(page 85)

This paves the way for his wry reflections on his own state:

I could never join the parade; I can’t walk fast.
Such is time’s ordinance. Lungs that rattle, eyes
that run. Now Barcelona is part of the past.

(ibid.)

It takes a skilled poet to hit on the contrast between what his eyes can do that his legs now can’t, and introduce the humour without taking away the pain.

And there is no sense of self-pity. The backdrop to these musings is an undiminished love of nature and of art. It reminds me of Landor‘s wonderful lines composed on his 75th birthday:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Walcott’s book of poems is like an extended examination of that idea. It opens with a reference to an astonishing work of art:

The chessmen are as rigid on their chessboard
as those life-sized terra-cotta warrriors whose vows
to their emperor with bridle, shield and sword
were sworn by a chorus that has lost its voice; . . .

(Page 3)

It draws on many other references, from the Pharaohs (page 8) to van Gogh (page 68). The egrets combine with a reference to art (page 8) as well as representing nature at its most wonderful:

The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
The cool green lawn, the quiet trees, the forest
on the hill there, then the white gasp of an egret sent
sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
with its gawky stride, erect, an egret emblem!

(page 8)

The beauty of nature comes in at many other points but it is in the sequence of poems from which the volume takes its title that one of the clearest links with age and death is made.

. . . . Some friends, the few I have left
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them . . . .
Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly, but I am happier
that they [the egrets] have come back now, like memory, like prayer.

(page 9)

Among all the celebrations of art and nature, the memories of love in a variety of forms, the reminders of old age, that twine their threads together in a complex pattern throughout the book, one of the most straight forwardly lyrical that can perhaps stand for all the rest is on page 70:

Wake up again to a dawn trembling with joy,
the silver beads on a dasheen leaf; the dew
of the small morning at Vigie when you were a boy,
a vessel, a trembling branch, a nodding acolyte
with the blackbird, not in the geometry of galleons
or abstract museum openings. Cherish the uninterpreted light
of approaching eighty, let your ignorance increase
as fashion fades, and cities decide what is right.

(page 70)

As with all poetry, this book has to be experienced to be understood. I think it’s well worth its purchase price and is a worthy companion to those long-established favourites on my shelves.

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