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Part One of Many (Too Many)...
I’ve been here many times before, and here I am again: fretting about getting unstuck…
The above graphic I’m using for this article presents a different take on “getting unstuck” than the image I had in mind. When I started writing this, I was thinking more along the lines of a car stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels and just digging itself into a deeper rut. But when I searched the database of Power-Point visual icons for images associated with the term “stuck,” I was presented with an image of a toilet plunger, and I thought, that also fits.
Getting Moving in the Right Direction
I’m vaguely recalling the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno where he says something about being in the middle years of his Life’s journey when he found himself lost in a dark forest, unsure precisely how far back he had left the path. I find myself feeling like that, except that I know the paths I have previously tried were not the way forward, ultimately, and that sooner or later I had to turn aside from them and venture into the unknown.
I do find myself sometimes looking back at one or more paths I had been on and wondering, what if I had stayed on it? They all seemed, inevitably, to reach a point where I knew they were leading me further away from myself and from my ultimate goals, though I’m still hazy on what those goals are or which way my true destination lies. I just know that my prior travels in Life have led me to various points where I observed that the call of my inner Muse was definitely getting fainter with each passing day, but there appeared no obvious path leading from my present position towards the sound of her voice.
There is a theme that runs through myths and epic poems and such, which was thoughtfully explored by Joseph Campbell in his masterpiece The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where the protagonist’s journey moves in fitful starts and stops, repeatedly reaching the dead-end of a blind alley, or at other times surmounting a hilltop and excitedly catching sight of an oasis that seems to be finally within reach, only for it to vanish like a mirage as he draws near; and at some point the false-starts and dashed hopes foment a feeling of existential despair.
What if the destination doesn’t even exist? Or what if it exists, but is hopelessly out of reach? What if Life presents us with one illusion after another to trick us into keeping moving? What if survival has no point, but we are goaded on by dreams and appetites given to us by something (or someone) who doesn’t have our best interests at heart?
“He who has a ‘Why’ can bear with any ‘How,’” said Nietzsche — a line quoted approvingly by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, as Frankl considered what set apart those who survived from those who succumbed to the horrors of Auschwitz — but the converse of this aphorism seems true as well: he who has no “Why” finds even the easiest “How” unbearable — as does the one who deep-down knows that the “Why” he claims for himself will inevitably disappoint. I need a “Why,” but I need one that’s not based in bullshit. And in this crazy world, there is so much bad information being continuously broadcast by bad actors and the groupthinking morons eager to carry water for them, making the critically important task of finding a solid “Why” extraordinarily difficult.
Like so many others in the world throughout human history (and pre-history), I find some inexplicable connection between aspects of my own life and these archetypal myths and dreamlike symbols, though I wonder if these ancient stories represent survivor bias. Did the Odysseus’s who succumbed to the Sirens just never have their stories told? Probably not. And if the would-be heroes who shipwrecked actually vastly outnumber the heroes who did make it back safely, then maybe people are right to hesitate at the gates before venturing “outside the wire” into the unknown. But then again, if you know that your present position is not sustainable, long term, then sooner or later you have to move on, regardless of the “what if’s.”
Is that feeling of dissatisfaction and unease, itself, the problem? By heeding this feeling, am I steering my ship towards the singing sirens, thereby condemning myself to shipwreck?
Or is this task of resolving these doubts and overcoming this inner inertia just another critical hurdle in my “hero’s” journey (or my comically bad imitation of the hero’s journey on my own ridiculously small scale)? I think that’s at least partly the reason why those stories and symbols exist: to get us to move past ourselves and overcome obstacles by grabbing hold of something eternal and anchoring ourselves to it, like a jeep being winched to a tree to pull itself free from the mud.
How many people have read the story of Jacob, the night before he encountered Esau, when he wrestled with God’s angel until daybreak and emerged with both a limp and a new name, and how many of these people have felt, in the depths of their soul, an inarticulate but very real identification with Jacob and his struggle? Regardless of whether the biblical account is historically accurate, this reality remains: the story speaks to something eternal about the human condition, and the role of Jacob is instantiated in the lives of countless people in every conceivable time and place.
Getting Unstuck Spiritually
There seems to be something necessary about facing this existential crisis without flinching, without hiding, and without pretending. Adam and Eve put on clothes because they were self-conscious before God. But according to Saint Paul, Jesus was the second Adam and reversed the curse by getting crucified, naked, on a tree. Somehow, the long, dark night of the soul ends when you come to God without adorning yourself in manmade bullshit, without numbing the spiritual ache with manmade bullshit, and without making a fake god in your own image and bowing down to that instead.
At some point, I stopped taking antidepressants. I didn’t do it cold turkey, because of the horror stories I’ve heard from folks who have tried that. Instead, I weaned myself off of them gradually, without consulting with my healthcare providers, because I already knew that they would tell me not to. And if I explained that the meds weren’t working, that I was as depressed as ever, but now my depression was compounded by unpleasant side-effects from the medication, the doctor would simply say that we needed to increase the dose, again. And I knew that really wasn’t an option, because a higher dose would just make the side-effects worse and while doing nothing, ultimately, to resolve my symptoms.
At some point, I had to admit that I am depressed for a reason: Life, as we live it today in the post-modern West, is deeply unnatural (as in, completely contrary to human nature) and is, therefore, depressing. We’re social creatures who are atomized and rootless, alienated from ourselves and from any believable semblance of a functional community. “The village is broken,” is how I heard an Igbo man put it. And all the things the people in the village used to do for each other, for free, are now available, at a dramatically inflated price, and with several pages of terms and conditions attached, from the crony-capitalist, globohomo corporations. And we’re supposed to pretend that all these pre-packaged globohomo products are good for us, when everyone knows it’s all a goddamn con job (not gratuitous cursing, I mean “goddamn” literally).
Maybe I just need to feel what I actually feel without trying to take the edge off with drugs, whether prescribed by a doctor or just something I use to “self-medicate.” Maybe I need to have my wits about me so that I can deal with what is keeping me stuck. Maybe I need to do like Dante and plunge forward, even if it means going through the inferno. Maybe I need to do like Jacob and grab hold of God.
But deep down, I know that one aspect of God that the biblical stories seem to accurately convey is that God is not in a hurry, the way we are. God, it seems, would rather get it right than get it over with. And if we persistently refuse to learn a lesson, God may give us a break from it, for a time, but that lesson always comes back, again and again, until we finally learn it.
What is that lesson that I need to learn? It seems to be a “meta-lesson” of sorts: navigating Life without having any pre-determined lesson plan and without any clear guidance as to what I’m supposed to be doing. Somehow, one of the ultimate lessons Life seems to afford us is the opportunity to learn how to navigate through uncertainty and discern what is true and good (at least for ourselves) and pursue that, without getting sidetracked by palliatives and distractions and counterfeits.
So I need to just be with what is, with no advance agenda and without any clear idea of where it all will lead, or even if it will ever amount to anything. And in that, I need to trust that God, somehow, some way, will bring good of it, ultimately.
Maybe I Need to Get Stuck, Rather than Unstuck?
Maybe I actually don’t need to get unstuck. Maybe I need to get stuck. As in, maybe I need to get rooted in something bigger and better than myself.
A word-picture or metaphor comes to mind: a sapling that has been pulled up by the roots and is now being blown about like a desert tumbleweed by the wind. But the young tree cannot just “bloom where it’s planted,” like we are typically advised to do, because it first needs to be planted. If it just tries to bloom in its current state, it will wither and die.
But the uprooted tree also cannot just be planted anywhere; it must be planted in its native environment (or at the very least, planted in a suitably close alternative to its native environment). Take a tree that thrives in the jungle and plant it in a sun-scorched desert or in a frozen tundra, and the tree will die (or at the very least, be sickly and constantly on the verge of death). It’s not just a matter of the tree being “mindful” of the dry feeling in its roots or the desiccation of its leaves, or of the tree harnessing the “power of positive thinking” to flourish in an inhospitable setting in defiance of its own nature.
To make the analogy work, the tree would also need legs, so that it could move itself to a more hospitable climate. The unpleasant feeling of dehydration could fuel its resolve, while an optimistic framing (e.g., Stoic mind-games) could help it remain hopeful during its journey through the wilderness.
Another word-picture or metaphor: a body rejecting an organ transplant because its immune system identifies the new organ as being foreign. You can’t just graft what works for another person onto yourself, nor what may seem to work for most people. We humans all have much in common, but we are also unique. There’s no benefit to doing the work of grafting yourself onto a solution that is contrary to your own nature, which your soul will reject as foreign, just to look like you’re “complete” somehow. You may fool others (though you probably won’t fool them for very long), but you definitely won’t fool yourself.
I feel rootless because I am. But the fact that I have the capacity for putting down roots indicates to me that a proper climate does exist, at least in theory, and could be created, if none presently exists. While being careful not to attach myself too closely to anything that is opposed to my own nature, I also need to keep in mind that the ideal is not to be a forever-free agent, because that image (popularized by 1930s “hardboiled” detective novels and 1980s action movies and the like) is manifestly contrary to human nature; rather, the ideal is to be rooted and grounded in what is true and good and among people who share a commitment to Truth and “the Good.”
That seems hopelessly abstract, and maybe it is. But in a “meta” way, that objective, the objective of discerning one’s own objectives, is the main thrust of my present struggle. The form of it has to be abstract, because there is no “one-size-fits-all” set of clearly-defined values.
To use the Pauline metaphor of the “body of Christ,” we are each fashioned for different roles within that body. For some folks, their roles appear straightforward even at the outset, but for others, it takes some open-ended experimentation and getting knocked on your ass by Life a few times before a method begins to appear in all the madness.
This is different from the Existentialist vision articulated by the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, in that I do not imagine myself as a blank slate, free to craft my own essence however I will, and burdened only by the responsibility of this metaphysical freedom. No, I am discerning that essence, even as it is manifested in and through me, even as I somehow co-create it with God, by God’s grace and empowerment. To use another of Saint Paul’s incisive metaphors, in Ephesians 2:10 Paul says that we are God’s handiwork, created unto good works, which he prepared in advance, that we might walk in them; and in Philippians 2:12-13, he exhorts us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is working in us, both to desire and to act. There emerges the image of contemporaneous acts of creation by both God and ourselves, and of God as both transcendent and immanent, a God who encompasses Time, such that he is both outside of Time (“before Abraham was, I Am,” says Jesus) and yet equally present at all moments along every timeline.
Beware False Prophets…
The search for spiritual truth is complicated by the fact that the real God is often misrepresented by demons and the people who worship them. They claim to speak for God and to act at his direction, yet all the while they are pursuing their own selfish and destructive agenda.
What did Jesus say? Not everyone who uses his name is actually connected to him. Beware of false prophets and smiling psychopaths. Inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruits we shall know them.
It seems that in our realm, at least during our present age, any ideology or religious movement can present itself as being in service of the real God. But Saint Paul warns that the devil can appear as an angel of light. One of Jesus’s most frequent warnings to the apostles is that they not be deceived. And recent history abounds with churches covering for pedophiles, or operating like pyramid schemes, or presenting a gospel where salvation overlaps quite nicely with the most hackneyed version of the American Dream (Jesus Christ suffered and died so that you could have a gilded McMansion and drive a Cadillac).
There is a step in the spiritual journey where you realize that you cannot be naïve and simple-minded. “Be wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves.” After seeing that you cannot simply blindly trust the first street-preacher or self-proclaimed prophet that comes along, you must next avoid the opposite error of pretending that you can rid yourself of spirituality and just deal with what is empirically verifiable and quantifiable by modern materialist scientists. The error of the “new atheists,” who turn atheism into a dogmatic religion in its own right.
We humans are spiritual beings. We are made to worship. If we tear down problematic religious beliefs and institutions, but build nothing substantial to replace them, our naked human souls inevitably attach to a counterfeit god. We see this on a grand scale in the post-Christian West, where the death-cult of Wokeism, a cheap Marxist knock-off of Christianity, has completely captured the cultural zeitgeist. It retains an idea of sin, even original sin, but discards any pretense of grace, mercy, forgiveness, or love.
So the goal is to become rooted in something real and true and eternal. Something beyond the Matrix’s control system and the demon-possessed psychopaths who run it; demented demagogues who pervert Life to the point that it really does seem like “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.”
From where we are, within this smoke-filled house of mirrors, it is hard to see anything real and true and eternal, which is by design. Why doesn’t God smash the simulation? If the rulers of this world are like the Wizard of Oz, putting on a big show of thunderous booms and blinding lights, why doesn’t God pull back the curtain, so that we can see things as they are? Well, maybe he does. Maybe, as Morpheus said to Neo, that realization is there, sticking in our minds like a splinter, nagging at us, telling us that we are in a prison that we cannot perceive directly, though we feel its effects as being deeply wrong somehow. Maybe that’s the real red pill: Satan or Yaldabaoth, or whatever name it goes by, is the god of this world. God, the real God, has intervened and left signs of his presence. The demons try to conceal these signs — or worse, try to distort and repurpose them, so that they appear to support their own self-identification as god and to reinforce their infernal control system. But the signs are there, for those who have eyes to see.
Why doesn’t God make things more obvious? Why does he allow psychopaths to lie so convincingly and so shamelessly? Why does he allow psychopaths to doctor the “evidence” and corrupt the institutions and norms and ancient stories in order to steal, kill, and destroy?
God could, conceivably, just miraculously give us virtue or knowledge. Perhaps he could make it instinctive, like walking is instinctive for those animals which take their first steps within mere moments of their birth. But without lying to us, God could not give us the experience of developing those virtues, of working through the confusion and of ascertaining truth and beauty and goodness, at long last, in the midst of a confusing maelstrom of lies and ugliness and evil. We have to earn those experiences by going through them.
Just like David could only compose the 23rd Psalm after actually walking the lonely and perilous path through the “valley of the shadow of death:” God could not give David the experience of completing that epic journey without actually living through that experience, and without reaching points along the way where it felt like he would die in that valley. To become the person who could sing truthfully about fearing no evil, David first had to face evil, with nothing but an abstract and seemingly insubstantial promise of providence from a God who stood alongside David, but who would not stand in front of him and fight his battles for him.
This essay is strange and meandering, but I think it has a point. The point is: get unstuck. God will make a way. The real God. Not the fake-ass wannabe gods that masquerade as objects of worship in our fallen world, managing to turn what God intended for good into instruments of evil. No, the real God is, and he will make a way. And though the journey appears uncertain at the outset and outright impossible at various points along the way, God will make a way. And at the other side of all this, there is a suitable climate and soil into which we can put down roots and flourish.
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