UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happiness/Joy I : Confession

This sermon is quite purposefully entitled "confession". A literary confession, like a literary apology or apologia, is not necessarily the same informal emotional scene as spilling your guts to the D.A., or even a priest, since there are certain formal constraints which apply, just as in any literary genre. Nevertheless you can count on a literary confession to contain more personal stuff than a more objective document. The dictionary definition of "confession", is the following:

"in literature, an autobiography, either real or fictitious, in which intimate and hidden details of the subject’s life are revealed."

Now, this is not the first time I have used myself as an example of some virtue or vice, but this time it will be a little different, because I intend to address more directly, than ever before, some of the psychological challenges I have suffered because of my Asperger's Syndrome condition. I will say some things that may sound paradoxical, or just downright untrue, but please know that I have thought about these things for a long time, and this all comes straight from the heart; furthermore, there is a larger point to it down the road.

There is a character in C.S. Lewis's Narnia novel, The Silver Chair, named Puddleglum: Puddleglum is one of a species of talking animals called marshwiggles. Marshwiggles are known for their sobriety of temperament: they all see the worst in everything, and expect the worst to come out of every situation; marshwiggles are a drag because they constantly rain on their own parade and everybody else's. Yet, the marshwiggle becomes the main hero of the story because it is this sobriety of mind that enables him to resist the magical wiles of the evil witch, and bring the adventure to a successful conclusion. As the witch attacks the party of Narnians with her hypnotic powers, it is the pessimism of the marshwiggle that supplies  him with an emotional distance; it is this emotional objectivity that, in turn, allows him to keep the big picture in focus while everybody else's vision is becoming blurred and seduced by the feelings of the moment; at the crucial instant, it is the mental clarity of detachment that gives Puddleglum the presence of mind to rise above the situation, defeat the witch's magic, and save the day. Thus, a pessimistic attitude toward mundane existence, and a faith in the existence of unseen realities, are, somehow, not mutually exclusive. It is precisely the ability to transcend the thralldom of petty emotions that empowers Puddleglum to triumph over the dark energy.

I sometimes think I am a marshwiggle--I don't have much of a positive slant on my personal life; I have no close personal friends, I have no social life, I never have any fun; in fact, I have a long list of things I say look like fun but aren't. I think there was a time earlier in my life when I did have fun, but when I think about it, I think maybe it was just having fun with my kids growing up--sharing in their fun--I can't remember the last fun thing I did that was just plain fun for me.

I am detached from most of the normal human emotions that people consider enriching, and which most people cannot do without: emotions like affection, sympathy, cheerfulness, anxiety, pride, regret, etc..  I'm not complaining, but neither am I bragging OR exaggerating. It has been noted that I often act out these typical feelings, sometimes with more vigor and demonstrativeness than normal people, but you have to understand that when I do this there is always a part of me that is detached from the feelings on display--it seems like they never really touch me. I think I learned these acting-out behaviors from models I chose to emulate in early childhood, and have continued to emulate them, out of habit, bad habit, even after I have come to understand their vapidity and hypocrisy. In fact, often, when I perform one of these behaviors, I can actually see the person I learned it from driving my antic disposition to its antisocial conclusion.

This is difficult to explain, but there is a musical analogy that might prove helpful: around 1600, there used to be a system of harmony associated with the so-called "affective humours"; every key was associated with a different feeling. One, in particular, the key of d minor, was associated with "Human Tragedy", the kind of visceral, bleeding heart, screaming your guts out tragedy; the key of e minor was associated with "Classic Tragedy"--tragedy of the mind, tragedy seen from a distance. The difference between these two types of tragedy might be summarized like this: d minor says, "I feel terrible!", while e minor says, "How terrible this is." Few people can tell the difference, but there IS a difference.

For years and years I was a neurotic mess and acted out lots of temper tantrums--I thought these tantrums were a central component of my personality, and to sacrifice them would be like giving up my spontaneity, my freedom. A few years ago, I realized that these emotional displays were merely self-indulgence, and really had nothing to do with what was actually going on inside me. I still have a tendency to talk too loud in public, state my opinions in emphatic terms, and physicalize emotional responses; BUT I assure you, these demonstrations should not be interpreted the way you would interpret the actions of a normal person, because Asperger's Syndrome has shaped and sculpted these responses into meanings that are unique to me, and may not mean to me anything like what they mean to you.

What I am getting at, is that, in spite of all appearances, Asperger's has given me a natural tendency toward a sobriety of mind that denies me access to many of the common pleasures that most people consider necessary components of something called "happiness", but it also gives me a higher level of clarity of mind that most people cannot claim.

This does not mean there is no laughter in my life, far from it: one of the notable features of my rehearsal style is that I am said to have a good sense of humor--I keep my rehearsals light through the use of humor, mostly of a bizarre, twisted kind, that is funny because it depends for its effect on unexpected turns of phrase, rather than the more normal situational kind of humor that most people are good at. Still, I can't say that this type of humor is a reliable indicator of FUN, per se, and it certainly doesn't imply happiness. The following are a group of quotes that point to the dark side of humor, the side that dominates most of my sayings:

Lord Byron, Don Juan (1821), Canto IV, st. 4.

"And if I laugh at any mortal thing,
'Tis that I may not weep."

Pierre de Beaumarchais, Barbier de Séville (1773), Act I, scene 2.

"I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep."

William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Comic Writers, "Lecture I: On Wit and Humour" (1819).

"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be."

Friedrich Nietzsche in The Will to Power [Der Wille zur Macht] (1888).

"Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter."

Ken Kesey, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962).

"You have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy."

Ray Bradbury, in Christ, Old Student in a New School (1972).

I am the dreamer and the doer

I the hearer and the knower

I the giver and the taker

I the sword and the wound of sword.

If this be true, then let sword fall free from hand.

I embrace myself.
I laugh until I weep

And weep until I smile."

Indeed, there is something so exquisitely sad about life, it sometimes seems sacrilegious to violate its solemnity with anything so trivial as a joke. Material existence sometimes feels like a burden so heavy, and yet so paradoxical, it is beyond our power to bear it; we feel, with Adam, the pain and loss of our expulsion from Paradise so keenly that our tears flow like rain, and our limbs sag with the futility of it all. Indeed, at the scene of Lazarus' tomb, Jesus wept; Jesus, possessed of all foreknowledge of the resurrection, all divine love and grace--Jesus, who already knew the end of the story, was so overwhelmed by feelings of sympathy with the people suffering around Him that He wept with them. Ah, life!

And yet, it is hard to imagine the face of the compassionate Jesus without a smile on His face. Witness the very interesting line from Ray Bradbury quoted above: 

    "I laugh until I weep
    And weep until I smile."

What is this smile? Where does it come from? Why do we smile when we are laughing, sometimes when we are weeping, and yet also smile when we are communing with the mind of God, the furthest thing imaginable from laughing?

Now, remember, the title of this sermon is Happiness slash Joy, so I must be trying to draw a connection between happiness and laughter. I purposefully mentioned the word "fun" a little earlier, because I once worked for a minister who was fond of saying, "There are two words that are not in the Bible: fun and luck." Well, imagine my surprise when I found THIS out: I downloaded the entire Bible last weekend intending to do a word search for "Happiness", and found out that the word happiness does not appear ONCE in the entire Bible, and the word "Happy" appears only seven times in the Old Testament, and and not once in the New Testament.

These first four Old Testament quotes use the word "happy", as you would expect it to be used--to describe something good:

Genesis 30:13
    Leah said, "Happy am I, for the daughters will call me happy."
        She named him Asher.

Deuteronomy 33:29
    You are happy, Israel.  Who is like you, a people saved by
    Yahweh, the shield of your help, the sword of your excellency!
        Your enemies shall submit themselves to you.  You shall tread
        on their high places.

1st Kings 10:8
     Happy are your men, happy are these your servants, who stand
        continually before you, [and] who hear your wisdom.

Psalms 128:2
     For you will eat the labor of your hands.  You will be happy,
        and it will be well with you.


Starting with Job, though, we get into more sinister connotations of the word "happy":

Job 5:17
    "Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects.  Therefore do
        not despise the chastening of the Almighty.

The idea of being corrected by God would seem, on the surface, to be  GOOD thing, ("Thy rod," ow, "and thy staff" ow, ow, "they comfort me," OW), but if we think about Job for a minute, I think we can tell this correction might not be "FUN".

And this next quote from the Psalms, the one that laments the captivity of the Israelites, practically equates happiness with suicide or infanticide:

Psalm 137:8-9
    Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be
    happy who rewards you, as you have served us.
    Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones
        against the rock.

And this quote from Malachi uses the word in an extremely sarcastic or ironic sense:

Malachi 3:15
     Now we call the proud happy; yes, those who work    
    wickedness are built up; yes, they tempt God, and escape.'


You can see from just these few examples, that the concept of "happiness" is not free of negative resonance. Furthermore, it appears to me that the word "happy" is a generalization for a spectrum of states of mind, of which many are not at all of the same quality or intensity. The word "happy" then, is such an ambiguous term that it has practically no meaning. In the main, however, I think that "happiness" is not unlike the state of ego fixity we have been discussing in previous weeks. I think that, above all, happiness means: no waves, calm seas, no movement in the fields. It also seems to me to mean something TEMPORARY. We can be happy with our apartment, happy with our car, happy with our salad, but can we really be happy with our lives? Doesn't being happy with our life mean there is no forward motion? And if there IS forward motion, how can we settle into a state of satisfaction? Dynamic states are not satisfying because satisfaction implies completion, and at least cadencing--a life motivated by spirit can never be happy because it can never be static--it's not over till (uh)  the fat lady sings.

The original scripture that inspired this message was this:

John 12:25
"He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal."

I thought it was such a significant expression, "he that hateth his life in this world", mostly because I carry around, most of the time, this feeling of apathetic detachment from my life, and would just as soon lose it as live it-- except for the fact that I feel convicted by a sense of commission: that I have been commissioned by God to do a certain thing, and my life cannot be over until I have completed my task.

To be sure, in the moment of doing that thing--completing that task--my life has meaning, and I would not trade my state with kings; but I can't say I get any lasting pleasure out of what I do: by this I mean that when I'm doing my job, I feel alive, filled to overflowing with spirit, and possessed by a personality of all goodness and joy--but when I'm not doing my job, I don't feel any particular residual satisfaction; the feeling of usefulness does not bleed over into the down time. In other words, my life "in this world" is basically flat and boring, and I fill up the time with pointless TV and novels. True, I am always trying to improve my mind by listening, in the car, to hours and hours of classic books on tape and lectures, and new music; but, you know, I don't get the kick out of improving my mind that I used to. I'm sixty years old now, and have spent a lifetime exploring the world of higher mind; and the loose ends I've lately been cleaning up, the act of finally listening to philosophers and writers I'd always heard of but had never got around to reading, is not so much the thrill of discovery, as it used to be, but more like a person cleaning up his apartment before moving out. It seems to me that of the point of life were to be happy, I would get more out of every second of my life instead of just the work part. Sometimes I feel like I am simply drifting from one task to another, and the only point to it all is that the next job, the next task will be here soon, and then I will be alive again.

I'll be even more honest: when I first came to Alaska, I suffered the worst personal tragedy of my life. It may be that the pain of this tragedy was so intense it deadened me to the world; but I would like to think that the pain of that personal experience was a gift: I think it created an atmosphere of redundancy, and functionally fixated stasis that allowed some psychic catalyst to kick me up into a daily mind state that was, and permanently will be, of a higher vibratory level than had hitherto been normal for me. I think the trauma sling-shotted me up into a mind state in which ALL the offered pleasures of mundane existence became dross. I feel that I am living on a higher plane than I ever have before, but also I feel that I have been robbed of something that normal people take for granted.

Thus, John 10:10 says:

"The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."

Is my life more abundant because I have have executed my duties? Well, I certainly can claim, with full assurance, that the armor of God has protected me, continually, from the strifes that attend the lives of many people living outside the fold of Jesus the Shepherd's protection, and I want for nothing--nothing the lack of which would hinder me in my work. But, as for the rest--I truly hate my life, and pray for its ending at Jesus's earliest convenience.

Perhaps I overstate the case. Let's look at some other commentary on this subject:

Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
"He that loveth his life shall lose it,.... The sense is, that whoever is so in love with this present temporal life, as to be anxiously careful of it, and takes all precautions to secure it; and rather than to expose it to any danger, chooses to deny the faith of Christ, and desert his cause and interest; as such an one shall not long enjoy this life, so he shall come short of an eternal one:
and he that hateth his life in this world: on the other hand, whoever seems careless about it, and not to consult the safety of it, but is unconcerned about it; yea, as if he was throwing it away, as of no great moment and significancy, rather than do anything to preserve it, which would be scandalous to himself, and be dishonourable to his Lord and master; he shall keep it unto life eternal: he shall be preserved in his temporal life, in a remarkable manner, until he has done the will and work of God, notwithstanding all attempts upon it; and he shall appear to have that spiritual life, which is the beginning and pledge of, and which springs up unto, and issues in eternal life; and that he shall enjoy in the world to come. This Christ said to let his disciples and followers know, that they must suffer and die, as well as he, though not on the same account, and for the self-same reasons; and that their sufferings and death in his cause, and for his Gospel, would turn to their advantage."

This quote seems to be saying something like, "Pay now, enjoy later." If you take pleasure in your temporal life now, you will be denied the joys of eternal life. If there is anything in this mundane existence that is powerful enough to distract your attention from the eternal, that distraction will cost you your soul. This is not unlike how all business is transacted, except at the credit union; it is like the Faust legend where Mephistopheles offers Faust a trade--his soul for one moment of true earthly happiness; Faust wins, because the Devil is unable to come up with ONE eternal moment.

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
"He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. Did our Lord mean to exclude Himself from the operation of the great principle here expressed-self-renunciation, the law of self-preservation; and its converse, self-preservation, the law of self-destruction? On the contrary, as He became Man to exemplify this fundamental law of the Kingdom of God in its most sublime form, so the very utterance of it on this occasion served to sustain His own Spirit in the double prospect to which He had just alluded."

Of course, Martin Luther has something to say:
Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter; 1 Peter 2:11-20
A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil.

1 Peter 2:11-20

"11 Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul;
12 Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.
13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
15 For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:
16 As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.
17 Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward (wayward-perverse).
19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God."


"Observe here, however, Peter teaches that the lot of the sharer in Christ's kingdom is quite the reverse of what he once imagined. "0 beloved Christians," he would say, "who are called and baptized into the royal and priestly kingdom of Christ, I have now to tell you things quite different from the ideas and dreams you and I used to entertain. We are, it is true, citizens, counts and lords in the kingdom where Christ reigns supreme over all earthly kings and lords, and where is only eternal riches, peace and happiness in every form; but the life of that kingdom is unlike that of earthly kings and dominions. You are not, be it known, lords and noblemen in a worldly sense; neither is Christ a king as the world regards kingliness, and the kingdom of the world is not in harmony with his. Know, then, you must regard yourselves strangers and pilgrims in the kingdom of the world."

[Sidebar: Boy, can I relate to that! I have ALWAYS felt like a stranger and a pilgrim passing through a strange land! I have always felt the melody of my soul to be in disharmony with the world. I'll tell the story of the idiot tuba player in a minute--let's finish the Luther quote:]

"Therefore, I admonish you that, having now become Christians--brothers in the eternal heavenly kingdom--your manner of life should be such as becomes them who are no longer of a worldly kingdom. Regard this earthly life only as the traveler or pilgrim regards the country wherein he journeys, the inn where he procures a night's lodging. He does not expect to remain in the city, to be mayor or even a citizen. He finds there his food, but his thoughts are cast beyond its gates, to the place where home is. So, Peter says, must you look upon your earthly course. You did not become Christians with the prospect of reigning here on earth, as the Jews fancy they shall reign and be established. The dwelling-place, the citizenship and the authority of Christians are to be found in another direction, not in this world. Therefore, think of yourselves as pilgrims on earth, directing your attention toward other possessions and another country, wherein you shall be lords forever, and where no discord nor misfortune such as you must endure in this earthly harbor shall ever enter."

Now, an old Russian folk tale once told to me by my first composition teacher:

The Village Idiot and the Band Leader

     Once upon a time, in the outlying provinces of old Russia, there was a village idiot.  In these days, as in many cultures around the world, the village idiot was considered to be sacred and was allowed to do anything he wanted.  This idiot loved to play the tuba in the town band, which he was allowed to do because he was sacred.  The band leader always attempted to lead his community group in popular walzes and light opera tunes of the time, but the tuba player always ruined things by showing up and playing a shower of random grunts and farts on his tuba, "Hoo, hum, hoo hum, blat, hbpth."

    The band leader tried various ploys to get rid of the tuba player: by hiding the village idiot's tuba in abandoned mines, by locking the village idiot in attics, and by attempting to hold secret rehearsals in the basement of the church, etc., but all his efforts failed.  Invariably, the moment he raised  his baton to begin the music, the village idiot would miraculously appear and begin playing passionate grunts and farts on his tuba, "Hoo, hum, hoo hum, blat, hbpth."

     Now, this band leader was a very talented fellow, and deplored his fate as a no-account, nobody, country musician.  He had visions of one day being discovered, of traveling to St. Petersburg to conduct the great orchestras there—to be celebrated, and applauded, and appreciated in that great city.  However, he was denied the clear opportunity to display his talents because that darned tuba player kept showing up and farting all over his conducting.  The band leader hated the village idiot for this, and daily plotted to rid himself of this evil impediment to his success.

     The band leader's one-chance-a-year to draw attention to himself was at the the county fair held every spring in his own little town.  Country bands from all over the district gathered there and played for the gathered crowds in a kind of battle-of-the-bands competition situation; the best band won a little gold-plated cup, and got to travel to a bigger town to compete against other bands from a much wider area, eventually, you guessed it, performing in the great St. Petersburg Amphitheater. The band leader pinned all his hopes on this event, because he was sure his band would win, if only he could get rid of the tuba player, if only he could get rid of that ghastly "Hoo, hum, hoo hum, blat, hbpth."

     The crucial day arrived. Early in the morning, the band leader seduced the village idiot into the back of a wagon with toast and jam, and while the idiot chomped and grinned merrily with strawberries all over his face, the band leader drove him out into the country.  When he felt he was far enough away,  he pulled the idiot off the wagon and chained him with strong chains to a tree. He tied the idiots hands with rope, and covered his grinning face with a burlap bag. He tore apart the tuba and smashed it into flat sheets of brass, and scattered them over the plain. Then he left the fool giggling under the burlap bag, and drove off exulting in his heart, almost tasting the acclaim of St. Petersburg.

     His moment had arrived. The expectant crowd had gathered and he raised his baton to lead the group in an arrangement of the quartet from Rigoletto that he had created himself especially for this occasion. Who should appear at that precise instant climbing up over the back of the bandstand, crumpled tuba clutched to his breast, but the smiling village idiot who began without a cue to gayly "Hoo, hum, hoo hum, blat, hbpth!" before the assembled multitude.  The band leader was crushed, mortified, enraged. He lunged  through the clarinet section at the village idiot with the intention of plunging his baton into that irrepressibly beating heart.

     Suddenly, there was a change in the atmosphere—a breeze, silvered with snow, whispered a solemn silence over the crowd. All eyes turned to the sky. Above, battalions of white clouds parted, like a curtain, to reveal choirs of angels singing hosannahs in the highest, a great lofty music. They descended upon the scene, shining eternal light onto the bandstand and onto the upturned face of the idiot tuba player, transformed, now, with a beatific smile of divine intelligence, an idiot's grin; and the band leader and all the people heard in a flash that the tuba player was playing in tune with the heavenly host.

Moral:
     Many of us get into battles with ourselves, with our self-imposed ego definitions, about how good we are.  We listen to the radio, to our favorite CDs, to the guy sitting in front of us in the band, and think, "I'm really no good, nobody wants to hear me." And so we hang back, hiding behind the other players, muffling our sounds with a self-deprecating veil. This is a wrong thing to do, because music doesn't have to conform to some objective standard we can carry around in our little brief case of verbal consciousness—it can be a spiritual emanation which is pure and truthful only when we give our best.  No one has any right to pass judgment on your best, no matter how much it sounds or doesn't sound like everybody else. If you're doing your best, playing with joy and conviction from your heart, you can be sure that on some plane of existence you are playing with the angels.


Clearly, the idiot tuba player was not living with his mind on earthly things--he was wholly taken up by heavenly song, which went unheard by human ears. And yet the fruits of his labor were there to hear once the proper context was provided. Did he play with more joy before of after the angels came down? Was there a difference? Will the second coming be like that? Or must we live the second coming every day in the privacy of our secret hearts?

Habakkuk 3:17-19

"Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places." 


We shall speak more of this next week, and I will reveal the true error of my ways.

Let us pray: Jesus, we depend on your guidance when we seek to derive meaning from anything. Please have mercy and lead us to the high places--at your convenience, of course. Amen

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