American Psychologist, Author, Professor and Philosopher
American Psychologist, Author, Professor and Philosopher
Ivan Illich has argued in Medical Nemesis that modern medicine has disempowered us to deal with our own suffering and dying. As experts take over the management of our bodies in every crisis from borning to dying, and redefine moral conducts such as addiction or greed as diseases, we are reduced to being passive consumers of professional body tenders. Increasingly our medical system infantilizes patients. How obediently we tolerate the authoritarian atmosphere of doctors? offices and hospitals! We wait patiently and submit to procedures we do not understand because the experts assure us they are necessary. And we die in hospitals because that is where we can get professional care. Only the lucky among us get help from hospice providers and are allowed to die in he comfort of our homes.
Map for an Endless Journey: These reflections on sacred and profane power leave many of my questions unanswered. Like anyone who has experienced an epiphany of the sacred in any form, I am caught up in the perennial struggle between sacred and profane views of the world. Like it or not, I am a citizen of both realms and must find some way to live in a creative tension between the two. I am under no illusion that I will ever live in a commonwealth governed equally by love, power and justice. But a map showing the topography of these competing kingdoms of human consciousness helps me to understand the direction in which I must travel to fulfill the sacred promise of my life, to become a wholesome person.
My body is a living museum of a natural history. As a fetus I passed through every stage of evolution. I had gills before lungs. I slithered on my belly like a reptile and walked on all fours before my reptilian and mamalarian brains were crowned by the glory of the cortex. In my holographic mind and evolutionary body eternity and time meet. My nervous system incarnates the story of Bethlehem.
Mythology is not just something in the head, it?s in the way we experience nature. In the degree that the natural order is felt to be maternal, the soul will be regenerated, reborn, reincarnated or transmigrated,. But it cannot die. Death is just a part of the cyclical existence of the human soul. This is an assurance we no longer have because we don?t look at nature that way. Consider other focal deaths. In the pre-modern world the two iconic deaths that gave people the meaning of life were the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus. Remember Socrates? last words? Socrates is dying, the poison has reached his waist and he leans over and says, ?Crito I owe a cock to Asklepios?. That?s very interesting, because Asklepios is the god of healing. Socrates, in the middle of dying says, ?I am being healed. I owe a cock to Asklepios?. Almost all of ethics after the time of Socrates, in Aristotle, in the Stoic ethics ? is a reflection on the life and death of Socrates. And, why didn?t Socrates escape from Athens and save his own life? He didn?t escape because, in his view, the highest good was found only in community. Human beings are human only when they are social, only when they?re in a community. And a community can only exist when there is law. Therefore the law of Athens must be obeyed even if it is wrong, otherwise one ceases to be fully communal human being. Ergo? Socrates swallowed the hemlock voluntarily rather than violate his vision of the communal nature of the good life.
Nowhere do we see this paradigm of illness so clearly as in the mythology that surrounds our most highly cathected disease?cancer. Cancer ?the enemy, the dark, insidious, irrational thing ? strikes its victims without warning or rationale. It is a metaphor for the evil that attacks the innocent. The deaths that we most focus on are those in which we feel ourselves to be victims of something. Increasingly, we are a society where there is a rush to victimization, where illness, and especially catastrophic terminal illness, is thought of as something that happens to a person?a cancer victim, a victim of a stroke, etc.
Once we acknowledge the inseparability of the self from the community, the quest for justice takes on a radical nature that goes beyond the civic virtues we owe to our immediate neighbors, it is no longer satisfied by mere fairness or by the obligation to share a minimum of wealth and power. It demands that we seek the fulfillment of the potentiality and promise of our neighbors, near and far. Love radicalizes the demand for justice by extending it beyond tribe or nation to all members of the commonwealth of all beings. As the Buddhist vow puts the matter: ? Sentient Beings are numberless I vow to save them.?
One of the few deaths, in the modern world, that has become iconic is the death of Che Chevera. For the communist world, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only hero who inspired youth was Che Chevera. After the Cuban revolution he voluntarily went to South America and was killed and became a martyr. Some say that one of the reasons the Soviet Union supported Cuba for so long was because they had the only martyr of the revolution .
One of the primary stories we tell about ourselves is, about the meaning of death?? Every culture has a mythology, a repertoire of stories about why people die. In some cultures people are thought to die because they?ve offended the gods. Many primitive mythologies assume that death comes as a result of breaking a taboo. It is not natural, doesn?t just happen. You?ve offended a god, or you have done something you ought not to have done. To understand the meaning of life you have to ask about the meanings that are assigned to death. What are the stories that govern death?? What kind of death is focal in a given culture?
Plato?s parable shows us it has always been difficult to separate shadow from substance, propaganda from reasoned conviction, data from meaning, opinion from wisdom. Every culture has had its image smiths, propagandists, myth makers, and newsmen. The first storytellers sitting around ancient fires fascinated their audiences and convinced them without evidence that floods were a sign of the wrath of god and rainbows a symbol of divine favor. In Medieval times the perils of sin and the pleasures of the good life were advertised for all to see in the stained glass windows of cathedrals. Crusades and holy wars were promoted by song and sermon long before the printing press invented yellow journalism or television helped politicians convert a struggle between haves and have-nots into a battle between heroes and evil empires. The manipulation of public opinion is as old as civilization and as inevitable as the lust for power.
Playboy and Cosmopolitan promoted casual sex and Erica Jong insisted that women had the right to the ?zipless fuck?. The sexual revolution promoted the impossible idea that sex was something any two consenting adults did without too much emotional involvement, that was, nevertheless, supposed to free us. We had the Reichian full body orgasm.( Probably, many of you didn?t have one. It?s colder up here in Canada. ) Salvation by orgasm. When even that proved inadequate we discovered that women could have more orgasms than men? four of hers for one of yours. . In due time we discovered the ?G? spot and the ?O? spot and the long repressed news that there were only clitoral orgasms. Thus, the vibrator replaced that part of the male anatomy of which we men are so fond and raised a question as to whether women should bother with men.
If we want to explore the significance of religion we need to reject both religious literalism and dogmatic atheism and return to the root meaning of religion??to bind, connect, or reconnect.? In its original sense, religion bears nearly the opposite meaning it has been assigned in modern times. It is not about cult, creed, ceremony, miracle, mystery or authority. Nor is it about occult knowledge of a transcendent God revealed by scriptures or religious institutions. Religious belief springs from an awareness that all creatures belong to a single commonwealth of sentient beings. This leads to a passionate commitment to venerate the miracle of ordinary life and dwell in the presence of the sacred. The religious psyche is animated by elemental emotions that stand in stark contrast to the emotions such as shame, guilt, envy, pride, greed, ambition and acquisitiveness that make up the palette of responses we learn from secular culture. The elemental emotions do not come from our social indoctrination but from the raw human encounter with the incomprehensible universe into which we have been thrown.
If you doubt that asking a new question is a royal road to revolution, transformation, and renewal, consider what happened when Descartes asked, ?Of what may I be certain?? or when Newton asked, ?How is a falling apple like a rising moon?? or when Marx asked, ?Why were men born free but are everywhere in chains?? or when Freud asked, ?What is the meaning of dreams?? Your question is the quest you?re on. No questions ? no journey. Timid questions ? timid trips. Radical questions ? an expedition to the root of your being. Bon voyage.
In our imagination death is an enemy. Physicians are taught that they must defeat it at all costs even though it eventually destroys us all. Death confronts us with our helplessness. ?very unAmerican. We?re not used to being out of control or surrendering. All of the emotions that are an embarrassment to our self -image as autonomous and independent beings are put in the waste basket of death.
If that entity I call my ?self ? is not an autonomous center of action, but is (pardon the language) radically dependent on, ontologically bonded to, intersubjectively connected with, erotically inseparable from God (the Ground of all Being and Becoming, the Self-transcending-Transcender-of all, the Alpha and Omega) how should I think about my personal power? Paradoxically! I am no-thing and Everything, an impotent part of an omnipotent whole, a sinner (sundered) and a saint (whole), ?At its best, religion reveals both truths about man: his worm likeness as well as his godlikeness. Religious heroism involves living in primary awe at the miracle of the created object?including oneself in one?s own godlikeness.? (Becker) How do I experience my godlikeness? My sacred power? Not by proclaiming myself ?the master of my fate, the captain of my soul,? a weary but unyielding Atlas,? Not by courses in self-esteem that assure me that I create my own reality. It begins with a quiet moment when my normal identity disappears and I am wonderstruck, terrified and fascinated to realize that my existence, like that of the cosmos, is mysterious beyond anything I can comprehend or control. When I consider my life existentially I realize that I am not a standardized human unit that can be replaced by another standardized unit. To myself I am not a specimen, or a member of a species that evolved from a chance collision of particles in the cosmic soup. The state may consider me a citizen to be numbered, taxed, conscripted, fitted into the demands of a five year plan. My employer may consider me a resource to be used or discarded as needed. But to myself I fits into no pigeon hole. I am a bud beginning to unfold, a story waiting to be told.
I am always transcending myself. I am a child of my time, blessed and bound by the values and prejudices of my family, clan and culture. And yet I can dispel my most cherished illusions. I can be a truthful witness of my own lies. I can sacrifice my immediate pleasure for a greater good. I can wonder, wait and work for a future I will not live to see. I can rise above my greed and cruelty and aspire to love.
I am unique. No one like me has ever existed before. I have fingerprints, a name and a story unlike any others. No one can play my part in the drama of history. I am an important piece of the puzzle without which the picture of life would be incomplete. My vocation is to become a gnarled, original, exceptional individual. I am common. Like all humans I have a hungry stomach and a divided heart. I need food and love. I was born small and helpless, grew into the fullness of my being, and must make the return voyage into decrepitude and death. I struggle to create intimacy and muster daily courage to deal with the anxiety of the unknown. I believe, I doubt, I celebrate and I grow weary. I am both greedy and generous. It is not easy to be me. Often I allow myself to be what you want me to be rather than expressing what I feel and value. Yet, again and again, a small voice?call it conscience, spirit or consciousness?calls me back to myself.
I live within abstract structures?government, nation, law, economy. I am a single cell within a social body that both nourishes and threatens to inundate me. My country gives me work, security and ideology but extracts a heavy toll on my time and conscience and I struggle to balance public demands and private needs. In modern times I have grown accustomed to urban ways and the convenience of machines. Computers have multiplied my calculations and media have extended my senses. But my feet are still in the soil. I am rooted in the humus. From dust to dust. My eco-self is a member of a commonwealth whose citizens include whales and starlings. I flourish only so long as I respect the communion that links me to all living beings.
I notice that as I think about various death-myths I hold my death at arms length. I can keep my anxiety under control when I deal with theories of death but when it comes to my mortality I resist, postpone, deny.
I offer my reflections on death from the point of view of an amateur. There is an enormous difference between dealing with death and grief as an objective occurrence and as the primal, existential fact of my death and my grief. I am dedicated to trying to understand human existence through the mirror of the life of Sam Keen, and I am convinced that I can best understand what?s going on in my culture by reading my own psyche and my own soul. As a philosopher, it is my hope to be a physician of the spirit and the soul. And, that means that I must first be a physician to my own spirit and my own soul. Philosophy is about the healing ? or if you want ? the salvation of the soul, not particularly or necessarily in a religious sense of the word.
I suggest our best metaphor for peace is an ancient one?the wrestling match. The Greeks visualized peace as a form of loving combat, a contest, or ?agon? between well matched and respectful opponents. They applied the word ?agon? equally to a wrestling match, a verbal dialogue, and the contests in the Olympic games. Their highest vision was of a world in which the impulse to war might be gentled in an arena where men and women competed for glory. They thought of conflict as creative and strengthening so long as it was rule governed. When I visualize peace I think of nations wrestling together. Politics as a playing field. I see enemies facing each other not as evil empires but as worthy opponents who struggle honestly to further their legitimate interests and value systems. I see the US and the USSR trying to learn from eachothers? strengths and weaknesses, Capitalism and Socialism locked, not in a Holy War, but in a dialogue about the priority of the individual or the community. And let there be rules, world law, and world courts, honored by all,and referees powerful enough to enforce the will of the commonwealth of nations. I haven?t quite gotten my faith down to a formula yet. But when I do my bumper sticker will say something like: Learn from your Enemy. Or, Grapple For Peace.
I want to call your attention to a small difference in the way we think about death that makes all the difference. If I ask, ?What did Socrates die from?? a medical pathologist might say, ?Hemlock? and give me a clinical description of death by poison. If I ask, ?What did Jesus die from? The answer might be: Blood loss. In both cases it is the wrong question. The right question is, ?What did Socrates die for??,?What did Jesus die for??
If death is the result of a purely biological event, it makes sense to medicalize the problem of dealing with illness and disease. We turn it over to a physician. We take our bodies to doctors and say ?Here,? ?I?m dropping this off. Fix it.? There are alternative movements where we?re beginning to understand our responsibility, but, by and large, we think and deal with disease and death as victims.
For the most part, in America, disease and death are experienced as something that happens to us?an invasion or bio-technical failure. Death strikes us, lays us low. Outside entities, enemies of the body?germs or viruses?breach our defenses and overwhelm us. Or, suddenly, through no fault of our own, the adrenal or pituitary glands malfunction. ?Death? and ?disease? are nouns that we must name before they can be conquered. When we first fall ill we wonder anxiously: is it diabetes or appendicitis or C_ _ _ _R? As the illness looms large ( is it fatal?) we become small, confused and in need of an authority who will take over the responsibility for diagnosing and prescribing the cure for our condition. Further, we usually expect that the process of repairing the damage will involve a technological solution?a pill to restore chemical balance, an antibiotic to combat an infection, an operation to correct a structural malfunction.
Gradually, sexual liberation trivialized sex and stripped it of sacredness because it overlooked the fact that genitals are connected to human beings who have histories, dreams, hopes, continuity, and children. Lately, we have found it necessary to re-own the old notion that vital and whole-hearted sexuality is the touching of incarnate spirits. Sexuality that does not honor the totality of another person ?body, spirit, history, story?- creates its own special kind of repression. It is important for us to ask whether the death liberation movement is in danger of encouraging a more trivial and alienated style of dying. Why? First of all, human death, is not a natural phenomenon, not a biological occurrence. Human beings are the only bio-mythic animal, our biology and mythology are inextricably connected. We are the self-conscious animal who cannot separate biology from the stories that we tell about ourselves.
Healing begins with the courage to name and imagine the disease. The disease affluent people in the developed world suffer from comes less from a Thorn in the flesh than a vacuum?.. Something crucial is missing from our awareness ? Ignored! Repressed! And the therapeutic profession is not helping us to re-member what lurks in the shadow. We are all too concerned with enlightenment and peace and harmony. What does the Shadow know?? Years ago in the orient, Lamont Cranston leaned a strange hypnotic power to cloud men?s minds so they could not see him.? How have we been hypnotized? What lurks beyond the therapeutic imagination?