‘God is dead’ means that the basic questions of life are no longer already answered, and the result is that we now have to answer them ourselves. For Neitzsche – author of the famous statement – this was freedom; for others – like Dostoyevsky – this was emptiness: ‘If there is no God,’ he said, ‘then everything is permitted.’ Dostoyevsky’s statement is a reflection on our world today where a sense of emptiness is eased by distractions – drugs of all kinds – and only occasionally disrupted by tragedies that remind us of what’s truly important. But we patch these disruptions as well as we can in order to revert to the continuing sense of emptiness. For some – increasing numbers – the drugs simply take over.
The deeper, underlying reason for this painful situation is that we have lost the capacity to construct meaning out of our experiences in order to live life with some peace and joy, and so we turn to addictions of all kinds to find relief from our pain. Gabor Mate, a renowned expert on addiction, says the question is not why addiction but why the pain that demands relief. In the case of drug-addicts, he continues, the reason is that the receptors in the brain that enable us to develop a relationship with our world, to make sense of life in other words – like the dopamine that enables motivation, and the endorphins that enable attachment – did not develop in their childhood because they did not have the essential nurturing support. Instead they experienced hurt, abuse or abandonment and the trauma – the cell-based memories – that continues to impact and hinder development. We judge addicts, he says, because they are mirrors of ourselves; because we know this is what is happening more and more to all of us: namely that we are losing our capacity to relate to our environment and depending more and more on things that bring immediate but temporary relief. The opioid crisis in this country is a glaring example.
I am working as a consultant with a program that treats addicted mothers, a daunting challenge for me, and a sometimes overwhelming challenge for those more directly involved in the program. But even more challenging is what I have learned about the – unexpected – profile of the typical addicted mother: average age of 35, with 3 children and expecting a 4th, from a white, Catholic, middle class, suburban background. Surprised? What this says to me is that the abuse and abandonment and the trauma that has always been the lot of the poor, is now spreading. Heroin abuse now ranks with cancer as one of the top health problems in the USA today.
Mate’s statement that the real question is not why the addiction but why the pain suggests that the trauma that hampers the brain development which enables us to make meaning and live with some measure of peace and happiness has increased. The parenting-supportive sector of our society – by which I mean the leadership and the various institutions that serve our needs – is no longer able to guide its children in this essential human process because it does not have the capacity itself. It no longer knows how to live in the world in a creative, meaningful way.
Harvard philosopher, Sean D. Kelly in his book, All Things Shining, offers a helpful outline of the western history that brought us to this place: our earliest stages of participating with life – the ancient (Homeric) Greek sense of wonder and gratitude for the many, ever-present gods (reflected also in the many primary traditions throughout the world); the later, classical Greek sense of a distant supreme, universal Being; the Hebrew God who was directly involved with people and their lives; the Jesus way of love; the attempts to marry the Christian way with the Greek supreme Being that emphasized law and human choice; the Reformation attempts to reclaim the giftedness of life and salvation; the insistent Enlightenment focus on the individual and self-sufficiency that inevitably resulted in Kant’s autonomous self, Neitzsche’s free spirit who makes up whatever meaning he likes, and Sartre’s existentialism that places the entire responsibility for one’s existence on our own shoulders. Kelly describes the modern novelist’s – like David Foster Wallace – American mood where a sense of wonder has simply gone, leaving only emptiness and increasing despair in its place.
Addressing the pain means rediscovering the wonder that is already all around us, if only we were able to pay attention to it; to the joy that is hidden from us because of our attempts to look past it and find something deeper, something we can control. Kelly uses Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby Dick as a metaphor for an approach to life like this that will ultimately drive us crazy. He quotes WB Yeats in a statement he made only weeks before he died: ‘Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it.’
Clearly, this pursuit of truth and control is understandable, but it is misguided and clearly destructive. So, how can we live in a way that responds to an intuition that there is an ultimate truth behind everything that is, but that works with the fact that this truth is something to be lived with – ‘embodied’, as Yeats said – but not ever known, and certainly not controlled? We, all of us, sense that this is actually the case, for our deepest experiences have always included a sense of givenness, and of something beyond us. It is what all the great athletes say when they have done something amazing: ‘It just happened…something was working through me…’ It is what lovers say when they are grasped by the mysterious purposes of the universe: ‘This thing is bigger than both us, Honey…’!!! It is what every inventor, discoverer, creator, artist proclaims: ‘Things simply came together…’ It is the experience all of us have had a football or baseball game when we were carried on the wave of the crowd after witnessing the grace of an individual or the magic of a team..’ The same kind of experience happens in a concert hall or in a cathedral; sometimes around a family table…
Kelly offers the concept – and practice – of poiesis as the way of appropriating and developing our receptivity to these powerful energies of life that would surely infuse us with hope and meaning in ways that would enable us to reconfigure our worlds; that would remove the pain that is the cause of our addicitons. Poiesis is defined as an activity that produces or leads (a thing) into being. It consists of an approach to life that reflects the ancient experiences of the wonder-inducing gods but also the modern sense that we can develop skills that enable us to participate in this wonder-making. These are the skills of a craftsman who learns over years of practice to discern subtleties in the substance and form of his work: in the soil, the wood, the stone; in the growing, the carving, the building. The craftsman comes to realize that he does not generate meaning but discerns the meanings that are already there. These are also the skills of the athlete and the artist who simply take the craft to another level. But they are also the skills of us ordinary mortals who can learn to discern in this way through intelligent observation, and profound connection, and deep understanding, and perceptive appreciation of differences, and ever-surprising discovery of new things. For me they are the skills of dialogue, as I have described them in other writings where I have defined dialogue as ‘participating in the emergence of meaning.’
Kelly reminds us of today’s forms of the monomaniacal – Ahab-like – pursuit of control that get in the way of this dialogic way of living: the soul-less machine, which with our developing technology, is taking away more and more of our poiesis-relationship with things by removing the need for skill, and thereby the possibility of meaning. Learning a skill is learning to see the world differently. Technology, by taking away the need for skill – Kelly refers to our dependence on GPS for finding our way though we all could add multiple examples – takes away our understanding of ourselves as cultivators of meaning.
The gods are calling us again, Kelly concludes. Perhaps, more accurately they have always been doing so: it’s simply that we have forgotten how to listen. Which is why it feels that God is dead. Now is the time to develop the skills for responding to their manifold manifestations that still linger at the margins of our disenchanted world. What Kelly calls a contemporary polytheistic world will be a wonderful world of shining things. I’m reminded – of course – of a poem by the ever-prescient Rilke:
Now it is time that gods come walking out
of lived-in Things. . . .
Time that they came and knocked down every wall
inside my house. New page. Only the wind
from such a turning could be strong enough
to toss the air as a shovel tosses dirt:
a fresh-turned field of breath. O gods, gods!
who used to come so often and are are still
asleep in the Things around us, who serenely
rise and at wells that we can only guess at
splash icy water on your necks and faces,
and slightly add your restedness to what seems
already filled to bursting: our full lives.
Once again let it be your morning, gods.
We keep repeating. You alone are source.
With you the world arises, and your dawn
gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure.
I am encouraged in particular by the final lines: ‘With you the world arises, and a new dawn gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure.’ Maybe this is the place to begin.