Staying With America's Troubles: Part 2
Part 1 can be found here.
Troubled. Nearly everyone has an intuitive understanding of what the word means, yet it’s one I feel is worth taking a moment to examine. If I were to say, for example “we live in troubling times”, I’m certain most people would have no problem understanding what that means, interpreting the remark as perhaps something closer to “we live in difficult times”, or as it’s sometimes curiously articulated, “we live in interesting times”. Or, if I were to tell you I was a troubled youth, and in fact I was, again, there’s little doubt you would have some basic idea about what that means. And similarly, the term would likely be interpreted as largely synonymous with the idea that I was a difficult or interesting child. Perhaps I was. Despite the similarities, however, troubles and difficulties aren’t exactly the same thing.
So, when I say, “America is troubled”, which is how I concluded the first part of this essay, it’s perfectly reasonable for one to interpret it as saying something like, ‘America is going through a difficult and interesting period in its history’, and certainly those things are true. But that’s not quite what I have in mind.
For the time being, I’ll spare you the details of my childhood and later troubles. I’ll only say that in addition to the normal things one can expect growing up, including one's fair share of existential angst, I experienced an unfortunate series of early traumatic occurrences which joined, at a certain point, into a united confederacy of wounds, essentially a demon. I can understand why there might be some resistance, and maybe even a bit of eye rolling in response to the use of a word like that these days. Most folks don’t take much stock anymore in talk about devils, dragons, demons, and other underworld entities, except perhaps for entertainment purposes, but there’s really no better word to explain the phenomenon I’m wanting to describe. I’ll have more to say about this later. For now, it’s perhaps enough simply to highlight the relationship between what we call being troubled, and trauma. Of course, trauma is itself a complex topic and it’s one I certainly don’t wish to mistreat or oversimplify, but a simple definition should be enough for our purposes. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event like a serious injury, accident, sexual assault, or natural disaster. After the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like debilitating anxiety, headaches, or nausea. Left unattended, an entity under the persistent influence of trauma may come to experience itself as the very source and wellspring of their own continued suffering, and the internal conflict this generates can present with all manner of neuroses and self-destructive symptoms ranging from shame to suicide. In essence, to be troubled is to be in conflict with oneself. It’s a word used to indicate an internal conflict not readily resolved. As a matter of fact, when it comes to trauma, resolution is rarely achieved. It may at first seem counterintuitive, but the very desire for resolution, a desire rooted in one’s incapacity to tolerate any number of unpleasant symptoms, is often part of the problem. In my estimation, resolution is not the same thing as healing, and frankly, I don’t think resolution is ever really the goal, despite its importance in narrative terms, or colloquial usage. It’s completely juvenile, for example, to understand death to be the ultimate point of life simply because it comes at the end. I suppose if one believes the rendering and production of meaning as only ever a retroactive affair, then I could see why taking such a view makes perfect sense, as far as sense-making goes. It may be understandable. but it’s nonetheless an idiotic idea. Imagine reading a sonnet by Shakespeare and afterwards claiming the period at the end of the sentence is the most important element. It misses the point entirely (no pun intended). If resolution were really the most important thing, then people everywhere would file into concert halls just to hear the final triumphant chord being struck. It would all be over before it started. None of the preceding drama would be of any importance whatsoever. In short, the usual thinking associated with resolution prioritizes ends before means, and we know where that leads. In any case, the incapacity or unwillingness to tolerate one’s symptoms results, at the level of the individual, in compartmentalization, a defense mechanism used to avoid the discomfort and anxiety caused by one’s conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, and beliefs. At the collective level, this move often results in scapegoating. They’re two sides of the same coin. Debates seeking either to prioritize or draw an indelible line between the importance of individual and collective responsibility are thus really not all that helpful, except perhaps to highlight the inextricability of the molar and the molecular. Or, perhaps even of an immanent and transcendental framework. The point, as I see it, ought never to be so much resolution which, in imagining the possibility of some idealized future is akin to a kind of utopianism. Rather, I believe the aim ought to be integration which is more a pathway directed toward one’s continual growth and healing, one which must be forged with sensitivity, skill, and courage. I almost can’t believe I’m quoting Ronald Reagan, especially considering his legendary. exceptionalism, but I think he was more or less correct when he said, “peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” Irish philosopher Peter Rollins who has written a fair amount about Ireland’s Troubles, says something remarkably similar. “War”, Rollins says, “is not conflict. War is the inability to handle conflict.” I might as well round off these quotes with a third I rather like. Process thinker Daniel Day Williams picks up where the two leave off, writing “Love does not resolve conflict; it accepts conflict as the arena in which the work of love is done.” The introduction of love into the discussion might signal to some that we are now stepping off of firmer ground onto more soggy, unstable terrain. But are we really on such stable ground to begin with? What once may have appeared as small fractures in America’s seemingly imperishable foundations, cracks which could either be overlooked with a heroic dose of liberal tolerance, or if that failed, filled in with judicial granite, have today widened into a seemingly unbridgeable chasm. I believe now may be the time to take a step back from the edge, else our troubles should only worsen. For the moment, the possibility of peace appears foreclosed as our differences will not submit themselves to any easy resolution anytime soon. The choice placed before us, as I see it, is that between open war and continuous conflict, troubling as that may be.
Ready. Aim. Ceasefire.
Having just referenced it, I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone has already anticipated where I’m going here, especially considering it’s the very subject of our current enquiry which bears the same name as the recent conflicts in Northern Ireland. The Troubles, as they came to be known were the result of centuries of complicated history and names roughly a twenty-year period marked by bombings, sniper attacks, roadblocks, and imprisonment without trial. According to some estimates, some 3,600 people were killed and more than 30,000 were wounded before a peaceful solution involving the governments of the U.K. and Ireland was reached in 1998. It’s not my intention to provide any sort of commentary or analysis of that conflict. Frankly, I’m not qualified to do so. My goal is far more modest. For those Americans who find themselves deeply troubled by the political climate and social divisions that have plagued the U.S., divisions which seem to have only intensified in recent years - I simply wish to bring attention to Ireland’s Troubles as one possible source of wisdom from which we might have something important to learn. Of course, I don’t mean to downplay important differences between the Irish and American contexts, certainly there are many. But it’s the similarities which for me are perhaps most salient. In a recent interview, Irish poet Michael Longley, renowned for the quiet beauty of his poetry, and for using classical allusions to cast a provocative light on contemporary concerns, remarked how strange it was that while Ireland is becoming less sectarian, the U.S. is moving in the exact opposite direction. I found this observation rather astute and provocative, as well as potentially productive, and it was the thing which first got me thinking about the possible usefulness of placing the American situation against the backdrop of the Irish one. Longley’s best-known poem titled Ceasefire, is an adaptation of a scene from Homer’s epic poem about war and suffering, the Iliad. As Longley recounts, “the old king of Troy, Priam, plucks up courage, goes to the tent of Achilles to beg for the body of Hector, his son, whom Achilles has killed, and Achilles is mutilating the body, dragging him after his chariot. Priam visits Achilles and begs for the body of Hector. [This, according to Longley, is the very soul of the Iliad], the first great and probably still the greatest poem in European literature.” Longley compressed this rather lengthy episode into something similar to a sonnet and what emerged is this:
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.
The poem first appeared in The Irish Times, the very week of the ceasefire. Longley recounts that shortly afterward, while walking down the Lisburn Road, a man approached him, saying, “I really admired your Achilles poem, but I’m not ready for it.” Earlier that year the man’s son had been the victim of a punishment beating. The father was not ready to forgive.
Around that same time there was a man, a draper by the name of Gordon Wilson. He was blown up beside his daughter in a bombing on Remembrance Day. A couple of days later, with his arm in a sling and plaster on his face, he said to the television cameras that he forgave the killers of his daughter. He didn’t even call them murderers. Such forgiveness seems superhuman, almost impossible, and it brings to mind what is perhaps the most impossible act of forgiveness ever recorded. While nailed to a cross, while being mocked, dying an unjust and agonizing death, a man somehow finds it within himself to utter the words “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” For my money, it is only upon the cross while uttering these seemingly impossible words of forgiveness, that in the story Jesus, a political criminal and a religious heretic, becomes readily identifiable as the Christ. In other words, it is only upon God’s death that God comes into full view, which should trouble anyone certain of who their flesh and blood enemies are.
In the first part of this essay, I had commented that God remains ineluctably beyond the reach of direct observation, and I still believe that to be basically true. In my estimation, if one wants to see God, the closest one might get, is something like a Gordon Wilson.
I’m reminded of another story I’d like to share. It’s one I’ve always found rather beautiful and compelling. It’s told by the surgeon Richard Seltzer, about a young woman with a tumor in her cheek. In order to remove the tumor, Dr. Seltzer is forced to cut a tiny but important nerve which controls the muscles on one side of her mouth. The woman is scarred for life, her face slightly droopy on one side, her smile crooked. Seltzer writes of his visit to her hospital room after the surgery.
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of her facial nerve, the one to the muscles in her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. As a surgeon, I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.”
Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. “Who are they,” I ask myself, “he with his wry mouth, they who gaze and touch each other so generously?”
The woman speaks:
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “It is because the nerve was cut.”
She nods, is silent. But the young man smiles.
“I like it,” he says. “It’s kind of cute.”
All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with God. Unmindful of my presence, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works.
I remember that the gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in.”
I’m tempted to simply leave things there. Each time I read that story I’m moved to tears. Yet having now said something about how one might possibly obtain a view of God, I must finally return to where I began. Blessed are the peacemakers. The way my grandmother had finished the phrase was technically incorrect, though completely understandable. The two phrases are supposed to read as follows: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Immediately following comes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The couplets do seem readily interchangeable without losing anything of the basic meaning, and I can’t help but wonder if the accident was not a happy one. I’m perfectly happy to let it stand. Moreover, I’m curious if the accidental couplet itself works if placed in reverse? Could one’s desire to see God, produce peace? I’m not certain, but at least I have some sense of which direction to look.
Recent Presidential candidate and Spiritualist Marianne Williamson, writes in her recent book A Politics of Love, that “What is going on in America today is not just a political contest; it is a spiritual one as well… A politics of love is a holistic perspective on human change, addressing the internal as well as external aspects of societal dysfunction. Otherwise, ancient symptoms simply morph over time into new iterations.” And here I think Williamson is correct.
Increasingly, Americans hope to overturn, and turn-away from their troubles. What I’m proposing, less a prescription than a suggestion really, far less a silver bullet than its line of flight, is to turn-over, and stay-with our troubles. It’s a phrase borrowed from my spiritual mother, Donna Haraway. She writes, “staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not at a vanishing pivot between awful or Edenic pasts, and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.“ Staying with America's troubles thus entails a tolerance for indeterminacy and conflict, requiring a rootedness in and intensification of the present, difficult as it may be at times, so that our symptoms may speak, and be heard, else they should mutate into demons we mistake for each other.