Thursday, February 24, 2011

By-Products of a Damaged World

I've recently been reading the late UK novelist's Muriel Spark's book The Comforters. Her first effort at the genre, it describes in detail the life of Caroline Rose, a recent convert to Catholicism. Set in 1950's Britain, Rose is first supremely skeptical of organized religion. The fellow believers with whom she interacts have an intellectual understanding of the faith, but to her they lack real sincerity. Beyond that, she believes that these people appear to fabricate God's presence in their lives, rather than displaying the humility only a truly Divine relationship can produce. In particular, Caroline finds one frequent, unfortunate practice most distasteful of all.

Recalling these proceedings, Caroline recalled too a similar fireside pattern, her family on the Jewish side with their friends, so long ago left behind her. She saw them again, nursing themselves in a half-circle as they indulged in their debauch of unreal suffering; 'Prejudice!' ' outright insult!'

Catholics and Jews, the Chosen, infatuated with a tragic image of themselves. They are tragic only because they are so comical.

This could well describe the combative attitudes of the present day. I could be speaking of Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Non-Christians, Labourites and Tories. Prejudicial attitudes do exist, but after a ceaseless war of words, sometimes even with bombs and guns, what is gained? We do not trust. We do not understand the process of our opponent. So we lash out, in a cathartic exercise that may exorcise our frustration, but does little to eliminate the confrontation which has created our need to vent.

These days, it's difficult to separate the posturing from heartfelt sentiment. Politics has always been a question of making a show to advance a larger point, even if the ultimate outcome will be defeat. Governors stand in schoolhouse doors. GOP-controlled chambers of Congress threaten to strip complete funding to Planned Parenthood. It is easy to fall into the role of martyr, and overly-ambitious people fashion entire careers this way. Shell-shocked as we are in these contentious times, I wonder sometimes if we may court this suffering and persecution for our own perverse psychological need. For example, politicians who willingly take martyr roles may believe they are particularly well-qualified or possess rare traits of misunderstood integrity.

Other martyr complexes involve willful suffering in the name of love or duty. This has been observed in women, especially in poor families, in codependent or abusive relationships. It has also been described as a facet of Jewish-American folklore.

The desire for martyrdom is sometimes considered a form of masochism. Allan Berger, however, described it as one of several patterns of "pain/suffering seeking behavior", including asceticism and penance.

In my own life, I observe Asceticism among certain Quaker groups. Conservative Friends, in particular, fit the profile well. "Conservative", in a Quaker context, doesn't refer to political allegiance. It merely means that such Friends are seeking to "conserve" the old ways of doing things. Whether this means going back to the land to embrace an agricultural way of life, much like our common ancestor the Amish, or even to dress plainly depends on each individual group in question. The attitude runs hand in hand with the concept of purity. According to two separate dictionaries, a purist is defined as "one who desires that an item remain true to its essence and free from adulterating or diluting influences" or "a person who adheres strictly and often excessively to a tradition", especially "one preoccupied with the purity of a language and its protection from the use of foreign or altered forms."

Purity may well also be a by-product of pain and suffering. I recall in my own life how purist I was, in an early stage, regarding music, art, and film. In some ways, I still am and may always be so. It was painful to hold interests and passions which so few shared. Biological beings that we are, we undergo adaptations so that our lives may be allowed to progress to their natural, inevitable end. Should pain and suffering be constants, the body will develop, naturally, coping strategies to manage it. Yet, sometimes we will still go to extremes to seek the ability to feel pain, if only to pronounce it publicly. Some find this comical, some find this self-serving, some find it brave and noble.

Regardless of true intention or audience, I do see more and more of such behavior these days. And I'm increasingly inclined to view it as a rather telling response to the prevalence of pain and suffering around us. The behavior itself may or may not be healthy, but the environment that enables its growth and prevalence is, in my opinion, incredibly toxic. That we would seek pain in order to display our wounds to the world sounds like a disease to me. The treatment is not more conflict, more fear, and more contagious hyperbole. God knows what we will become next should those continue unchecked. These days, I fear for our collective mental health more than the latest bill being considered in Congress. And as I direct my energies upward once again, my prayers are for everyone.

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