Today I want to weave together several themes that for me feel related: dissonance (friction and the process of “becoming more fully human”), narcissism (and the inability to empathise; to see and experience the world through the perspective of the ‘other’), tedium and the everyday grounds of our formation (taking time with life and thinking small), wisdom and its relation to human lives full of mistakes, and finally, the importance of open conversation and collaboration – our need of the ‘other’.
“…Da Vinci’s notion (‘…Do you not know that our soul is composed of harmony?’) is such a nice one that it’s most likely wrong. Nice ideas, after all, are often inaccurate, too tidy or sweet to get at the harder truths about how we really live our lives. Surely the soul, if there even is such a thing, is not composed just of harmonies but of discord and dissonance too. Nudged into consciousness by friction with the world, the soul likely plays more than a single melodic line. It shifts between major and minor keys, alters the phrasing, moves from soft to loud and back again, all over the course of a single lifetime, or day by day, or maybe even minute by minute. Perhaps it feels simultaneously young and old, independent and needy, sanguine and depressed — a whole range of competing and contradictory emotions that, if we acknowledge them all, can leave us paralyzed, or on our way to becoming more fully human…” (By Barbara Hurd, via here).
Simon Carey Holt introduces us to Barbara Hurd who reflects on the role of dissonance and discord in arenas like music, psychology and philosophy. Part way through she says this:
"'For now we see through a glass, darkly,' the Bible says. For me, it's more like 'Now we hear through a thick wall, barely.' How much do I miss? How much cluck and chirp, woof and trill, burrowing, gnashing, and last breaths go on while I walk oblivious among it all, preoccupied with this or that, intent on listening only for the sweet melodies? The answer is 'plenty,' though I am hearing more these days than I used to. Maybe the biggest challenge now is to expand my notion of harmony so that it includes even the unlocatable creaks of the dying, the screeches of healthy discontents, the cacophonies of want, all the unnerving sounds that accompany so much of our jostling attempts to make sense of life."
She [Hurd] concludes: "What seems to be leading me these days is a wish to move, ear first, a little closer to what surrounds me, to close my eyes and hear how dissonance can agitate the spirit and widen the spectrum."
Cheryl Lawrie tells us (here) that she’s reading – “…an utterly terrifying book on narcissistic cultures … called The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement [looking forward to reading this in a couple of weeks – Paul. Thanks Cheryl for bringing it to my attention!], written by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell.”
“I first heard about the book”, Cheryl writes, “on an Insights [radio] program on narcissism a few weeks ago, which had me wanting to go hide under a rock. It frightens me for many reasons – not least that one of the primary symptoms of narcissism is a lack of empathy – an absolute inability to grasp the idea that another person may encounter the world differently to us …”
While James K A Smith reflects on “Thinking Small” in a recent commencement address he delivered:
“…What I’m suggesting is this: so many of the big dreams that you now envision as success are, when you get there, going to feel unbelievably empty and vapid and anticlimactic. In fact, let me put it starkly: if you keep thinking happiness is in the land of big dreams, then you are on a trajectory toward disappointment. If you only dream big, you’re headed for disillusionment … [so what do we do with that disillusionment; with our discovery of reality, contra the effect of a lack of realism? – Paul] .We’re sending you out of here with the ticket to success. But it can be just that success that will feel hollow and deflated unless you learn to dream small.
Talk to all kinds of people who have achieved everything they set out to do in this life, who made it to the top of their professional heap, and what you’ll often hear is this:
‘Its not what I thought it would be. What it turns out to be, even at the height of accomplishment, is boring as hell. Just when you’ve spent a life climbing to that fabled top, where you thought having it all would mean everything, you get there only to discover that it doesn’t mean all that much.
This is why tedium and ennui are the demons of modernity. And the only way to exorcise them is gratitude for the mundane.The bacchanalian delights of the wine are going to have diminishing returns; you need to find joy in actually tending the vineyard…
Here a parable comes to mind: the parable of Lester Burnham as told in the film, American Beauty [One of my favourite movies. See also Smith’s essay “Faith in the Flesh in American Beauty: Christian Reflections on Film” in his book of essays “The Devil Reads Derrida” (pub. 2009) – Paul].
You might recall Lester, played so well by Kevin Spacey, mired in the boredom and placid emptiness of what was supposed to be a successful´ American life. He is finally awoken from his suburban slumber by fantasizing about Angela, who he thinks is the girl of his dreams (his wife Carolyn notwithstanding!). So Lester falls into the trap of thinking that happiness is to be found in the fantastic, in a dream-world that is something other than his mundane, workaday existence. But just when he is about to attain his dream, he realizes that what he’s wanted has been right in front of him this whole time. It’s just that his fantasies and dreams blinded him to the all the delights enfolded in his own little world. And so the film closes with this moving, post-mortem soliloquy:
I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one-second isn’t a second at all; it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars. And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street. Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper. And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird. And Janie…And Janie…And…Carolyn…”
Cistercian Monk Fr. Michael Casey OCSO importantly reminds us that “…wisdom is the taste for ultimate truth, I suppose and I’d have another definition for it. Wisdom is just simply the quality of resilience after making mistakes. Any real human life is full of mistakes and the more mistakes the better because with more mistakes we learn. The longer we live, the more mistakes we make, and if we’ve got half a brain, we eventually begin to learn as one grows in age, the number of one’s mistakes increases, thereby you learn from one’s own experience what works, what is good, what is true, what is beautiful. That’s what wisdom is…”
Rowan Williams (from here) - “…Honest discourse permits response and continuation; it invites collaboration by showing that it does not claim to be, in and of itself, final…”
David Tracy (from here) - “Conversation in its primary form is an exploration of possibilities in the search for truth. In following the track of any question, we must allow for difference and otherness. At the same time, as the question takes over, we notice that to attend to the other as other, the different as different, is also to understand the different as possible. To recognise possibility is to sense some similarity to what we have already experienced or understood. But similarity here must be described as similarity-in-difference, that is, analogy”.