It seems the United States is in a state of being denied, wherein what people want is not what they are getting. In a sense it is like fasting. People hunger and thirst for righteousness, but never seem to be fed.
Fasting is supposedly spiritual, when it isn’t done out of vanity, merely to improve appearances, but rather is done to break our addiction to worldly cravings.
I must confess I was never big on fasting. When young I had a revved-up metabolism and couldn’t put on weight even when I tried, (and I did try, attempting to increase my bulk for football.) Having this sort of metabolism makes you into a sort of eating machine at times, which doesn’t look all that spiritual. Yet then I might go a surprising period of time on nothing but coffee and cigarettes (and sometimes whisky) utterly indifferent to food, because I was “a writer”. (I will confess I learned to add lots and lots of powdered milk to my coffee, so I suppose the milk kept hunger at bay.) However, after one of these spells of being “a writer”, I’d be hit by a ravenous appetite and completely disgrace myself, in spiritual terms, by wolfing an entire large pizza like it was a cracker.
Therefore, I am no one to seek out as an authority on self-denial, and how it benefits the spiritual aspirant. To be quite honest, a lot of my “writing” is me complaining about how I don’t get what I want. (I am rather good at such complaining, if I do say so myself.)
Oddly, even though I never really sought self-denial, I did manage to wind up in some situations where I was a “suffering poet”. Largely this was because I was offensive. I didn’t mean to be offensive (most of the time) but there is something offensive about taking the attitude that you are special and should get what you want, especially when what you want is for everyone else to go to work nine to five as you stay home smoking and drinking coffee (sometimes spiked with whisky) being “a writer”. In any case, let it suffice to say I did not get what I wanted, and people made me feel less than welcome, when they didn’t just throw me out on my ear. This placed me in a position of self-denial even though that was the last thing I wanted.
One crisis I got myself into involved leaving New England in a sort of self-imposed exile, at age 27. I had offended just about everyone, including myself, and just packed all that seemed valuable into a tiny 1974 Toyota with a 1200 cc engine and headed off into the cruel world. I slept in that tiny vehicle fairly often, which I suppose is self-denial. And, (as even exiled Romans such as Ovid and Cicero admitted), exile had its benefits. Self-denial can uplift the spiritual seeker.
In any case, while thinking about the current suffering occurring in the United States, I recalled a poem I wrote before I left New England on my exile. In Rome people often accepted exile as a way to escape a more severe punishment, and the old poem was about the punishment (self-inflicted) I was enduring before I left. Something about America’s current suffering reminded me of that past, and I went searching for the old work in my yellowed papers.
Found it! It is an unusual poem for me, in that I reworked it several times. The first draft was from November 1978, the second draft from July 1979, and the final draft was from October 1980. In other words, this poem expressed the passion of a young man in his mid-twenties.
Anger's a sabre thrust into my heart; My heart is a scabbard of pain. I would draw out the long, bloody blade And see all my enemies slain, But blood is a terrible stain. My fingertips shake with the strain. Foolish men fawn for a dollar a day And artists are driven to hiding. Generals are riding fat horses that bray, And therapists yawn at confiding While counting up dollars deciding What beaches to ruin residing Within aluminum siding, Then they go back to their guiding. Where is the handle? I must draw the sword And see that the dragon is thoroughly gored, Yet how can I haul out that head-hacking blade When the charger you sold me so recently brayed? Sorrow, sweet sorrow, is clotting my throat With stabbing I never could swallow. I want to bail out. We're in the same boat. Excuses have always been hollow. Where is the scalpel a surgeon would use And where is the surgeon who knows how to choose? The enemy has to be slain But blood is a terrible stain. My fingertips shake with the strain.
Besides being a fairly good indication that I chose correctly, in deciding to depart a situation which was driving me bonkers over 40 years ago, the poem traces some depths of feeling one may experience, when the situation that is driving them bonkers is difficult to escape. And the current situation in the United States is driving people bonkers. It is also difficult to escape. People who are nowhere nearly as offensive as I was in my mid-twenties may be feeling like I felt, all those years ago.
This makes me wonder if there is any advice I can offer.
In one sense I have no advice. I have never figured out how to make the people driving me bonkers stop doing it. They are what they are. The only thing I can stop is to stop myself. I’m the only one I can change.
In 1980 the biggest change I made was to stop retreating to my mother’s basement, when I felt hurt, and instead to retreat in an outward direction. It seemed a very brave thing I was doing, but even little birds do it, when they leave the nest. My departure was actually retarded, when you consider I was in my mid-twenties, and few took it all that seriously, considering I had “left home” many times before. Few knew how serious I was, and that I was truly gone for good.
Leaving the nest is self-denial because one is denying themself the very real comforts offered by a mother. Such comforts are provided in a nigh instinctual way and can be addictive. For example, my dirty socks would vanish and then reappear cleaned in the top drawer of my bureau neatly balled. This may seem like a little thing, but it never happened again, and, after forty years, recalling such kindness makes me nostalgic. But at the time I took it for granted and it made me lazy, dependent, and disgusted with myself. Moving from my mother’s basement was like leaving a dank dungeon and soaring into the open sky. Where is the self-denial in that? (I suppose it is in the fact the open sky can get stormy, and then one wants to head home.)
In the above example it can be seen that self-denial is closely associated with freedom. It is part of a tension which forever exists between security and freedom, wonderfully portrayed by a couple of Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell which appeared on consecutive weeks: (Notice the face is the same.)
In some ways this tension is as simple as the fact we get up in the morning and go back to bed in the evening. Life involves alternating desires. However, the factor I want to focus on is the self-denial.
In order to be a sort of yogi and to qualify as “spiritual” the self-denial must encompass both sides of an alternating duality; IE: when you want to get up you must stay in bed, and when you want to stay in bed you must get up. This sort of “fasting” is annoying as heck. It is a swift way to turn even bright spirits into sourpusses. It can only be done when the yogi involved is fiercely determined to reach some preconceived transcendental state, and, even then, is full of hazards.
I did try some of this self-denial when in my twenties and I learned something of the hazards. It is a bit like enduring the pain of jogging to get yourself in shape. One problem I ran into was that I tended to lose my desire and to see my resolution fade, and to in a sense “fall off the wagon”. (This was not like falling off a horse, wherein you get back on where you fell off, but more like the game of snakes-and-ladders; you go slithering down a slippery slope and have to start over from the very bottom.) Then a second problem was that the very few times I did bungle into the periphery of some sort of transcendental state it tended to scare my socks off; I wanted to run away and be normal again. Lastly was that, (most of the time), such self-denial wrung the joy from my life and left me a sourpuss, and a crank. This was so far from the nirvana I was seeking that it actually was what propelled me from my mother’s basement.
This brings me to the subject of what was propelling me. I felt as if I was to some degree out of control. This seemed irresponsible, but to some degree we cannot take control of everything. Some days the fish simply are not biting, and no amount of yelling at the water can change their minds. And the same is true of hitchhiking. Some days the traffic will not stop, and neither yelling nor smirking convinces anyone. It is at such times one finds themselves muttering to the sky, and to the possibility of a Power besides ourselves, who controls.
As a young intellectual I strove to be logical, and to doubt the existence of anything which could not be scientifically replicated, but my Atheism was troubled by a series of events which could not be replicated but could also not be denied, for they saved my life. Midst my “bad luck” were odd experiences of “good luck”. Eventually this led to a series of inner crises and I “got religion”, which made me in some ways even more offensive than before. I was even more likely to sit around writing as others went to work when I thought God would care for me. But eventually I became aware God didn’t automatically gratify my desires, and was as libel, and in fact more libel, to utilize self-denial. For example, the only time God washed my socks and put them in the top drawer was when God manifested as Mom. The rest of the time the socks stayed dirty.
It is upsetting to some when God doesn’t respond to prayers like He is some sort of vending machine, wherein you put in your prayer and the answered prayer plops out at the bottom. After such disappointment, one must take matters into their own hands. This is fine when the problem is dirty socks; one simply learns to wash their own socks. However, it is not so easy when things get out of control, and your best efforts come up empty.
In my case, (along the lines of fishing when the fish weren’t biting, and hitchhiking when nobody stops,) coming-up-empty often occurred when looking for a job. Many times, I was one of those fellows who waits outside an unemployment office hoping for spot labor. I didn’t feel in control of my destiny, especially on those days when there was no work, and, on those days, God heard a fair amount of grumbling.
I well know the temptation one then feels to be corrupted; God may say you’ll earn no money that day, but one is tempted to rob a bank.
To be honest I suppose I must reluctantly confess that I have succumbed to temptations to some degree.
As a teen I sowed some very wild oats, but once I “got religion” my moral failures never progressed much beyond smoking and drinking too much, a few failed romances, and some petty theft, (and I did repay the market I shoplifted cigarettes from). While I did feel the urges to be corrupt, they never won me over to the degree one sees among politicians in “The Swamp.” I tested the waters of corruption and was repelled.
I’m not sure why this was the case. It could be that I simply wasn’t deemed worthy of spending the time, by those who do the tempting. One good thing about being flat broke is that few see you as being worthy of seduction.
It also could be I was protected. After all, once I “got religion” I had given my life to the Lord (to some degree), which means I had admitted I couldn’t control life and needed help. And what happens next?
Once you have such a Superman watching over you, perhaps you get protected even when you don’t want to be protected, as was the case when certain gorgeous women walked by. When lonely I was not at all inclined towards self-denial, but had to endure it. The Good Shepherd was guiding his sheep, even if the sheep was a black sheep.
Eventually it sunk into me that a lot of the self-denial I was experiencing was actually good for me. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s I endured a fair amount of mockery from even my closest friends for being something of a prude. Then, starting around 1982, a lot of the fellow “writers” who had mocked me started dropping dead of AIDS (which was a reletively swift and unpleasant way to die back then, with no cure). Then self-denial didn’t seem like such a misfortune, and indeed more like a miracle.
Of course, I always wanted the miracles to be more pampering. One story I often tell involves a Christmas miracle. I was five dollars short on my rent and a green, rumpled piece of paper came blowing across a parking lot. As I stooped to pick it up, I could see it was money, and was fairly certain it was a five, which it was. Even though I felt a warm glow all over I felt comfortable enough with my Creator to joke, “Couldn’t You have managed a hundred?” But I’ve heard it said that when you are thirsty God gives water, not lemonade, and to me this has seemed true.
This brings me back to the subject of self-denial, and the fact I seemed to get more self-denial than gratification, which must mean that, if the Good Shepherd is in charge, there is more good in not getting what you want than in getting what you want.
Why should this be?
I think this is true because getting what you desire seldom satisfies. You usually just want more. We tend to be creatures of habit, and the way to freedom from addiction is not to get what you are addicted to. This is not to say some habits are not good habits: When a bad habit enslaves us we tend to call it “being stuck in a rut” however a better habit is described as being “in the groove”, but even good habits limit our freedom, and I think God wants us free.
It helps me to understand how habits enslave when I describe a “desire” as a “craving”. Craving sounds more beastly, and even undesirable (which is wonderfully ambiguous, as you are saying desire is not what you should desire.) People who can admit they “desire” are less likely to confess they “crave.” But, if you don’t think craving controls you, just hold your breath for sixty seconds. Soon breathing, which you ordinarily don’t even think about, becomes the only thing you can think about.
Craving can be seen as a distraction. It is like when you have a job to do, but just then a very attractive person walks by. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, nor what your sexual preference is, you are distracted. And from God’s perspective, humanity is a herd of distracted cats. He is the only One able to herd them.
One thing God seems to seek to do is to free us from our cravings. And it turns out that such freedom is far more likely to occur when we don’t get what we desire. For example, when even the most zealous suiter is disdained over and over, and is finally arrested as a stalker, the zeal must seek a different channel, even if it doesn’t completely fade like the final ember of a fire. Typically, the suiter settles for second best, and rather than a “lover” becomes a “friend”. If they can’t be number one in the beloved’s life, and can’t actually massage the beloved’s shoulders, they must settle for making this a better world for the beloved to live in, by uplifting other people they formerly wouldn’t bother with.
Having our desire frustrated is painful, but it frees us from needing to have a specific desire fulfilled in a specific way. One thing I have noticed in people who have been through great suffering is that they are less demanding and are more able to be happy with less. They are satisfied with water and don’t demand lemonade. Rather than restless they know more of peace. Rather than post-traumatic-stress they know post-traumatic-resignation.
I have had trouble being resigned because I am a battler and tend to be more inspired by pep talks, like Winston Churchhill’s famous “Never Surrender” speech when England was threatened by Hitler. I also liked the prophet Issaih’s defiance of the Assyrians when they besieged Jerusalem. I did not like the prophet Jeramiah’s advice when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem a few decades later, for his advice was, “Surrender, for this time you are up against God’s Will. You must accept the punishment of captivity and exile.”
Surrender is a bad thing when it is a surrender to slavery, but God does not want us to be slaves. God is the only One worthy of surrendering to, for He knows best when our desires should be thwarted and when they should be gratified, and how best to move us to a point where our minds are unclouded by cravings, and our hearts are free to love.
One interesting thing about the relatively poor people who the “elite” call “deplorables” is that the poor seem more able to put their own desires aside. A factoid which never made sense to me is that the poor give more to charity than the rich, in terms of a percentage of their income. (In fact, some rich will not give to charity unless they themselves profit in some way, which is not charity at all.) How can this be true?
It has occurred to me that the poor, without the slightest wish to be yogis, have had to see their desires denied over and over again, until the habit of craving is worn down, and they no longer expect gratification. Then, because their minds are not clotted with cravings, they are more able to hear their hearts. The poor workingman’s heart defies his intellect’s banker’s-budget, when he impulsively hands half his sandwich to a hungry, onlooking child. In this and a thousand other small ways the so-called “deplorable” are not deplorable at all, and in fact are more loving than, and are spiritually superior to, the so-called “elite.”
Blessed are the poor. Because they do not require gratification to be happy, they are often happier than billionaires. They live in a world wherein quaint values the elite call “old fashioned”, but which are actually ancient and eternal, rule. So maybe not getting your desires gratified is a good thing.
The elite, who are constantly sating their desires for wealth and power and fame and sex and drugs, discover gratification does not lead to freedom, and instead become more and more addicted to their desires. In spiritual terms this insidiously matures into a colossal mistake, for even when they imagine they are enslaving others they in fact are enslaving themselves. Even when they think they are smarter they are in fact becoming increasingly ignorant. Even when they think they see clearly, they are blinded by desire. And even when they think they gain control they are losing self-control; in seeking power they become spiritually powerless.
Hopefully you see where my thought is leading. It is a complete contradiction of the values which rule the elite. It denies that which the American mainstream media attempts to say is the only sensible way to think.
The foxes push saints from pulpits to preach To the chickens, but their sly idealism Is cynicism. They actually teach The opposite of what they say. To them Hypocrisy's second nature. They don't know How fresh and clean Truth is. They cannot see How blind they are. They think it wise to sow Thistles, and create their own tragedy. See them now, puffed in pulpits, so sure that They're collecting dainties, like gamblers sweep Winnings from a table, chewing pure fat That drips from chins. Meanwhile chickens keep Their distance: In fact, the pews are now empty. The outfoxed fox snarls, for he can't tempt me.
Tired of this anger I'm carrying I turn to You, my Lord, and plead my case: Mankind creates divorces out of marrying And turns the sweetest blush into disgrace. Your generosity is met with greed. Your colossal kindness met with hate. They snatch away the milk that babies need And dream their tyranny will make them great. Am I to sit and turn the other cheek? Must goodness zip its lip as hellfires singe? How is it You in silence will not speak As bigmouths blare the bull that makes me cringe? I pray my suffering's like that of fasting. I hurt today for joy that's everlasting.