We are swimming with the snakes at the bottom of the well
So silent and peaceful in the darkness where we fell
But we are not snakes and what's more we never will be
And if we stay swimming here forever we will never be free
I heard them ringing the bells in heaven and hell
They got a secret they're getting ready to tell
It's falling from the sky
It's calling from the grave
Open your eyes boy, I think we are saved
Open your eyes boy, I think we are saved
Let's take a walk on the bridge right over this mess
Don't need to tell me a thing baby, we already confessed
And I raised my voice to the air
And we were blessed
It's hard to give
It's hard to get
But everybody needs a little forgiveness
We are calling for help tonight on a thin phone line
As usual we're having ourselves one hell of a time
And the planes keep flying right over our heads
No matter how loud we shout
Hey, Hey, Hey
And we keep wavin' and wavin' our arms in the air but we're all tired out
I heard somebody say today is the day
Big old hurricane she's blowing our way
Knocking over the buildings
Killing all the lights
Open your eyes boy, we made it through the night
Oh open your eyes boy, we made it though the night
Let's take a walk on the bridge right over this mess
Don't mean to tell me a thing baby, we already confessed
And I raise my voice to the air
And we were blessed
It's hard to give
It's hard to get
It's hard to live
But still I think it's the best bet
Hard to give
Never gonna forget
But everybody needs a little forgiveness
Everybody needs a little forgiveness
A Very Lengthy Tangent...
I apologize at the outset for what may turn out to be either a melancholy or dull commentary or both. I have thought frequently of what I would write about this song in particular and the place of music in my life in general. I hope what I write wont be found to be too far afield. The degree to which I would be self-revealing has also weighed on me as I don't want to be obnoxious. And I promise that the comments for my other song selections will be far shorter. You may need this reassurance about halfway through this!
Anyway, I tend to find this song quite meaningful and the one for which I'll end up writing the most. It has been quite a struggle to write the thoughts that well up when I hear this song because I am given to dwell endlessly on attempts to describe my world view in its totality which explains my failure to finish on time. Besides the fact that this is probably quite naive and grandiose, what possibly does my world view have to do with music or this song? I guess this song evokes for me hope in the midst of despair. It is sort of a lifeline and sets me off to ponder my life and how I interpret, understand, and live it. This, for me, is true of all the best music. I associate it with my deepest feelings and concerns. And I am concerned, if not obsessed, with meaning.
What am I? Why am I here? Is there any purpose to my life? What is the purpose of my life? What should I do with myself? Why is there something rather than nothing? And perhaps most poignant, disturbing, and for me inescapable: Is life, and my life specifically, worth living? Maybe this last question is self-centered, absurd, or an illogical one, but I cannot escape it. As Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, "There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." I wont attempt to defend his assertion, but will only say that I agree.
I don't want to imply that my concerns are shared by everyone or even anyone, particularly in terms of intensity or how they are framed, nor that my approach to them is superior or even helpful. My concerns and thoughts just are what they are. How one feels, how one experiences life, how one interprets it seems to be a product of so many factors that constitute one's temperament. I have struggled with depression concerning the question of life's value at various stages of my life. In particular there have been two sustained and severe episodes: one in the years soon after college and another in 2005. Both periods lasted about a year and were debilitating. I lost weight, sometimes failing to eat for days at a time. And I cried and cried some more and then couldn't really cry much anymore.
I experienced depression as unbearable anxiety and sadness about everything. Nothing at all seemed to matter. When depressed I found almost any subject so terribly lamentable and eventually almost valueless. I was crushed underneath the weight of reality. All that I could perceive was pain, senselessness, repetition, and emptiness. It seemed nothing could rescue me. I was afraid: Afraid of life, afraid of death, afraid of myself and my mind. At bottom love was and is all that sustains me. That I could still feel love was a blessing, for as I read in a book about suicide "it is the death of love that fosters the love of death."
Aside from all the myriad scientific, psychological, and medical explanations, theories, and treatments for depression which I don't mean to undermine in any way, I'll briefly identify what seemed to be the "subjective" cause as interpreted by my self-conscious mind. I did not ask to exist. I was not consulted prior to my existence (obviously that statement alone is riddled with philosophical mysteries). And once here, I am immersed in the sometimes wondrous, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes drab nature of existence. Not to mention I am confronted with unending meanings, with mutually exclusive philosophies, with all kinds of ways of being, with a relentless cacophony of thoughts in my head, and with technological discoveries that are changing how we live and what it means to be human. And I must choose not only how to make sense of it, but if it is worth making sense of in the first place.
For of course, to me, it often has seemed that nothing ought to necessarily exist, that my life is quite insignificant, and that existence itself has no ultimate purpose. What possibly could any single life mean? What possibly could make life matter in any cosmic sense? Annie Dillard sums up this feeling of unimportance due to the sheer quantity of humans who live and have ever lived: "How are we doing in numbers, we who have been alive for this most recent verse of human life? How many people have lived and died? . . . Averaging those figures puts the total persons ever born at about 85 billion. By these moderate figures, the dead outnumber us by about 14 to 1. . . . Dead Americans, however, if all proceeds, will not outnumber living Americans until the year 2030, because the nation is young. Many of us will be among the dead then. Will we know or care, we who once owned the still bones under the Quick ones, we who spin inside the planet with out heels in the air? . . . We who are alive now make up about 6.8 percent of all people who have entered the world to date. . . . Half of the dead are babies and children. So we could console ourselves with the distinction that once we adults die, we will be among the longest-boned dead, and among the dead who grew the most teeth, too . . ." I suppose how one thinks about so many subjects is all a matter of perspective. At times my thoughts can seem invigorating, even liberating, and at other times they can be unbearable and deadening.
Depression caused me to contemplate suicide, the inexplicability of intense human suffering and the dark aspects of the history of life on earth, but it was also these subjects that made me depressed. And they can still do so. I found these words of Jean Vanier comforting in his slim book Seeing Beyond Depression: "You cannot do just anything. You have to look after yourself and treat yourself gently, enjoying relaxation, relationships, peace and prayer which will help you to stay in the light." This seems such a simple fact that was amazingly lost on me or at least I rejected it thinking I should be able to confront anything at anytime.
The darkness of depression that leads to suicide and violence is so bleak. The very power we possess to choose life or death, to be healers or destroyers, is sometimes almost more than I can bear. I personally find that suicide would make everything meaningless. It would be a surrender to nothingness; a final rejection of my life and of all life. It would render all beauty, pain, joy, sorrow, commitments, relationships, and love insignificant and void. In the words of G. K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy "The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world."
Earlier in the same work Chesterton wrote the following lines that summarize the anomie prevalent in his day and in ours and the existential feeling that I suspect gave rise to religion: "...it was perfectly put in those quiet lines of Matthew Arnold which are more piercingly blasphemous than the shrieks of Schopenhauer-- 'Enough we live:--and if a life, With large results so little rife, Though bearable, seem hardly worth This pomp of worlds, this pain of birth.' I know this feeling fills our epoch, and I think it freezes our epoch. For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre's castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening."
So I've described my depression, its consequences, and what I see as its cause. I am unconcerned with whether or not my diagnosis is accurate. Perhaps a more reductionistic explanation is the real cause or maybe some combination? Essentially my crisis of meaninglessness and the depression that results leads me to reject answers to my existential questions that go something like this: you are nothing more than a DNA replicating gene transfer conduit, there is no external reason why you are here, the purpose of your life is nothing other than what you make of it, and there is no answer as to why there is a universe other than it is possible because well here we are. That is, the universe is pointless or the point is to burn out into a cold lifeless chaos or to endlessly repeat itself. These answers for me are existentially unsatisfying and suffocating. However, I am absolutely certain and respectful that they are fully sufficient for some to the same degree that they are completely insufficient for me. And maybe for others they are also depressing, yet logically inescapable?
Why do these answers seem so troublesome to me? Perhaps I'm delusional? Maybe I'm a wishful thinker? Possibly I cannot handle the truth? And What difference does it make anyway? Who am I to be greedy and arrogant and restless in the face of cosmic absurdity? Why can't I just accept the plain hard truth? Well, I'm just a 32 year old white male living in the midwest who is confused, hopeful and trying to make my way. There is something in me and I suspect some others that resists rigid secularism and scientifically motivated reductionism. Perhaps we identify with the diagnosis of Hannah Arendt as quoted by Huston Smith in Why Religion Matters: "What has come to an end is the distinction between the sensual and the supersensual, together with the notion, at least as old as Parmenides, that whatever is not given to the senses...is more real, more truthful, more meaningful than what appears; that it is not just beyond sense perception but above the world of the senses....In increasingly strident voices, the few defenders of metaphysics have warned us of the danger of nihilism inherent in this development. The sensual...cannot survive the death of the supersensual [without nihilism moving in]."
So something is missing. This reductionism doesn't work for me and ultimately if I am to go on in a sane fashion then what works for me is of the utmost concern. So what does work for me? Well I cannot really speak for anyone but myself, nor do I know what works for Patty Griffin. But I sense in her a kindred spirit; someone drawn to the religious or mystical response, for lack of a better term. This response essentially claims that I am more valuable than I sometimes feel, that my life has a reason such that I was in some sense meant to be, that there is a transcendent purpose to my life, that I should do whatever brings meaning to my life which may not be what is simply pleasurable, easy, or absent of risk, and that there is a reason or cause to the universe, whether I can apprehend it or not.
I don't mean to imply that fiction trumps truth for me. I just have learned through the pain of existence that I need universal stories and sweeping metanarratives that are not necessarily the slimmest of explanations. That is, they are not wedded to parsimony. A metanarrative that I accept must be plausible and true to me, even if others may find it irrational or dangerous. I am aware that a feature of post-modernism was an essential rejection of all metanarratives other than the metanarrative that rejects them all. And I am also aware that modernism proclaimed the metanarrative of science, technology, and secularism on the one hand, while religious fundamentalists, on the other, reacted against this belief in defense of their particular cosmologies, all the while accepting strict modernist rationality.
Growing up in a fundamentalist protestant evangelical subculture, I was immersed in a way of thinking that no longer holds much significance for me. Because it was a reaction to modernism's erosion of conventional systems of belief and because it employed the same rigorous rationality to matters of faith and yearning, it had become wholly focused on logical arguments for this or that doctrine. It was concerned with crafting irrefutable arguments for the existence of God, heaven and hell, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the inerrancy of the bible and more. It had an intense focus on right belief in this life for salvation in another. Christianity in this context was about intellectual assent to certain beliefs deemed deductively true such that faith became a logical extension of having surveyed the evidence. It was not a way of living one's life so much as a way to get to heaven. Some words delivered by Randall Balmer when I was a college student still connect with me today when describing the evangelical theology I knew: "They have constructed an intellectual fortress that is logically impermeable. They have cut and sliced and proof texted. They have stripped all mystery from the Bible, this wonderfully complicated and maddeningly contradictory book. And they have given us a theology that is airtight and unambiguous and intellectually defensible and cold and sterile and deadly dull. About as interesting and compelling and nutritious as a dollop of cool whip." Ultimately, I experienced evangelical arguments as unconvincing and their spirituality as empty. Additionally, I found and continue to find some fundamentalist aberrations particularly disturbing when they elevate obscure (but perspicuous to them) interpretations of apocalyptic texts such that they end up practically abandoning essential teachings on compassion, peace, and justice. For example, their suspicion of someone advocating world peace or protecting the environment or some other virtuous endeavor due to the possibility that this person could be the antichrist or some apocalyptic wolf in sheep's clothing is unfortunate to say the least.
Where does this leave me? I crave a story that takes seriously my need for ultimate meaning, but that isn't trying to claim more than I need and that I don't find morally reprehensible. I am more of a dreamer. I need a worldview that is hopeful and that motivates me to live, to help others, to contribute. I have rediscovered that religion and spirituality can provide this for me. I affirm the words of Wayne Teasdale in The Mystic Heart, "Being religious connotes belonging to and practicing a religious tradition. Being spiritual suggests a personal commitment to a process of inner development that engages us in our totality. Religion, of course, is one way many people are spiritual. Often, when authentic faith embodies an individual's spirituality, the religious and the spiritual coincide. Still, not every religious person is spiritual (although they ought to be!), and not every spiritual person is religious." And I'll quote from an essay by John Updike: "Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything -- from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components -- seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and -- may we even say -- illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me." Thus, I am religious and I strive to be spiritual.
Religion helps me confront the nature of reality. It is not a deductive syllogism that resolves all questions. It is a way of being alive and a way of thinking of our place in the world. However, the challenges to it are substantial. A quote from the naturalist David Attenborough summarizes one such difficulty: "My response is that when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that's going to make him blind. And [I ask them], 'Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child's eyeball? Because that doesn't seem to me to coincide with a God who's full of mercy." This is just one example of what could be an endless list of such utter suffering and sadness, not to mention other intellectual and experiential doubts.
How do we live in such a world? How do we make sense of our own experience in light of our own physical or emotional suffering and the immensity of suffering around us? I do not take it as my task to explain the nature of God in light of evil or to resolve all problems. I do not know what a hypothetical better world would consist of. The world simply is what it is. Religion and faith in God helps me endure it and to withstand the inner storms. It helps me overcome nihilism and to desire to "participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world". I do not know what the future holds. I don't know what the place of humans will be. I don't really know what we are. Whether I live forever, for 30 more years, or die tomorrow, meaning is vital. An enchanted and enlarged view of life is essential for me. Religion generally is the best place to cultivate purpose, wonder, awe, gratitude, joy, peace, risk taking, and sacrifice. My hopes and fears are taken seriously. Religion, in its finer forms, emphasizes acceptance, tolerance, affirmation of life, community, solidarity, shared visions, service, questions, beauty, support through all the stages of life, and prayer. How precious prayer has become to me given that it had become for a time the most empty and intellectually absurd obstacle. What a paltry and singular understanding of it I had! For me religious vocabulary and imagery is key to a sense of the sacred, to a sense of life's depth and fullness. Absent of this language my life seemed quite impoverished.
Thus, I am drawn toward the religious response to the questions that fester in my mind. My choice isn't based on a preponderance of evidence and indeed sometimes it doesn't seem to be based on any evidence at all; even in spite of the evidence. And I am troubled by some of the religiosity I encounter. But nonetheless, my choice is based upon faith or as the writer of Hebrews saw it "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." My religion, Christianity, is what I know. Its hymns, psalms, stories, scripture, doctrines, practices, depths, teachings, and meaning for me is, borrowing someone's else metaphor, the loom upon which I weave the fabric of my life. It is a framework for which to live. I identify with Christian metaphors and symbols. With the help of Marcus Borg, I have come to see Christianity as a way and to experience the transcendent propelling me as I journey through life, rather than feeling like I am alone and propelling myself. At the very least this is psychologically useful. My religiosity is not about belief in particular fixed truths, but it is faith in God sustained through spiritual practices that make me feel as though I'm experiencing God (e.g. prayer, worship, meditation, art, etc.) and immersion in a religious tradition.
Furthermore, Christianity for me is about nonviolence, compassion, courage, and life. It has helped me deal with guilt for wanting to live and guilt for wanting to die. I found Chesterton's words useful in organizing my thoughts on this matter: "Christianity had also felt this opposition of the martyr to the suicide: had it perhaps felt it for the same reason? Had Christianity felt what I felt, but could not (and cannot) express--this need for a first loyalty to things, and then for a ruinous reform of things?"
Depression is akin to a black hole. It devours the light. I almost felt like I couldn't escape. Religion offered me words of comfort in the book of Deuteronomy: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live." And theologian Dorothee Soelle strengthened me with these thoughts from Choosing Life: "We are inclined to affirm life under particular circumstances, under given conditions--when life is young, and beautiful and full of achievement. The 'Yes' which is meant in the emphatic, biblical sense is a 'Yes' without any conditions. It applies in sickness and dying as well." And it the gospel of John I read these exquisite words: "In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
Life is good even though we eventually die, even though we don't clearly know its ultimate purpose and struggle to find purpose in our own lives. This isn't something I can just assume and set aside. Living a joyful contented life is a struggle and must be nurtured. I believe, maybe for no other reason than to feel good, but I don't truly think like this from moment to moment. It's hard to find something emotionally and spiritually compelling on the one hand if you can't take it seriously on the other.
Perhaps religion is an opiate, a meme, a construct purely to make me feel good... In some sense I fully agree that it is. That simply must be the point of religion. It seems obvious to me really. It helps me survive. But this doesn't negate its potential truthfulness. It is possible that there is a transcendent reality. It is possible that human life has deeper significance, even if it is imperceptible and grander than any one life can grasp. Perhaps there are multiple layers of meanings and ways to understand the nature of reality?
I respond as I do to the questions I asked at the outset because the response brings meaning to my life. It leads me to a religious community where these questions are addressed, discussed, and dare I say welcomed; a community where answers have been imagined and where they continue to be re-imagined over the years, always idealistically. My religion sees a transcendent purpose to the whole universe and more importantly to the human experience itself, in spite of my misgivings about reality, in spite of my doubts. And this does something for me. It brings me contentment. It helps me deal with despair. It produces vitality. It challenges me. It frustrates me. It embraces me. It makes me feel and want to be alive. In short, it's good news.
I feel that Patty Griffin's song "Forgiveness" captures my entire world view, from my feelings of sorrow, selfishness, guilt, and insignificance to my deepest longing, my hope and my faith. When I hear her sing I feel like she's my friend; that if we share nothing else we have this belief in common: The belief that life is worth living, that our existence and the entire story of the universe is part of a grand story, that there is a mystical and mysterious reality, at once both transcendent and yet immanent. Clearly this isn't necessarily true and quite unnecessary for some on the path to happiness and fulfillment. But it is experientially true for me in that I perceive it and the simple idea of it sustains and uplifts me.