Romantics like to think of themselves as unique individuals who have the strength of character to go against the flow. They describe anyone who stays in the mainstream as a “conformist,” a word with negative connotations.
Romanticism promotes an anti-social emphasis on individuality and self-absorption. (photo: public domain)
Academic and novelist Ann Swinfen has some interesting things to say about this topic as it relates to C. S. Lewis’sTheChronicles of Narnia. In her work of literary criticism, In Defence of Fantasy (1984), she points out that Lewis was against individualism and in favour of conforming to religious orthodoxy and societal norms. His fiction reflects this strongly held rational philosophy.
In a world driven to conflict by political correctness, wokeism, critical race theory, and cancel culture we need to find peace in our own important ideas.
Once upon a time, the term “spirituality” unequivocally meant something religious. In the West, a spiritual person was a good Christian or a pious Jew; someone who attended church or synagogue regularly and who made an effort to live up to what was preached from the pulpit. They were uplifted by the minister’s or rabbi’s praise, chastened by his criticisms. They also read one or another version of the bible and found useful guidance and comforting sustenance there. They said their prayers and believed that God was not only listening, but might also answer in some way. The Lord worked (in the world) in mysterious ways. Across society at large, there was a consensus of opinion as to what constituted behaviour and values that acceptably matched the Judeo-Christian tradition. This mattered. The latter notion occasionally rears its ancient head to this very day.
In a world of punitive political correctness, aggressive wokeism, divisive critical race theory, and destructive cancel culture it has never been harder to be true to yourself.
The near-total collapse of Christianity in Western Europe, and its sharp decline in North America spilled vast numbers of people into a world where spirituality supposedly did not matter. Scientism, materialism, relativism, or rational positivism were the way to go and there was no reason to look back upon archaic notions of a “spiritual life.” Who needs the providence of God when we have big government and the social safety net? Who needs the moral and ethical guidance of a religious faith when we have the “scientific” psychologists and psychiatrists to tell us who is behaving badly (sociopaths, psychopaths) and who is behaving properly (the well-adjusted) and why each group is bad or good.
After many decades spent viewing the world in this way, it has become evident that something is seriously lacking. I believe that what has gone missing is all sense of spirituality of a practical useful kind. As so often happens where objective evidence is scanty, we have thrown the baby out with the bath-water. The mistake has arisen from a fundamental misunderstanding of what spirituality really is. The old idea of tying spirituality to God and religious faith masked the reality that spiritual matters actually have to do with our own inner selves. The Judeo-Christian tradition caught some aspect of this with the notion of the soul and its damnation or salvation, but dropped the ball when it went on to ascribe the source of values and the outline of appropriate behaviour to an external God. This way of looking at the human condition constitutes an externalization or projection of what should be seen as coming from inside one’s own self.
Psychologist Carl Jung lays this out clearly in his book, Answer to Job where he suggests that the dictates of the Bible look more like the unconscious contents of the persons who wrote it than the pronouncements of a spirit God. A dim but growing awareness of the true situation may, in fact, be responsible for the substantial demise of organized religion. Too many people experienced a discrepancy between church teachings and some of their own thinking or intuitions. That same vague understanding may also explain today’s widespread interest in the various schools of psychological thought.
So, if spirituality is not really tied to religion, yet it is something we all seem to need, where may it be found? A case can be made that the answer lies in a three-fold process. The first two are entirely psychological: a relatively straight-forward but honest attention to self-discovery and the much more difficult exercise of possibly humbling self-acceptance. The third item, self-realization, is actually an activity–a life-long wilful activity–the wielding, actualization, and fulfilment of one’s found and accepted self in the world. (Note that this self-triad is my elaboration of the Jungian idea of individuation, which is only obliquely addressed in current psychological practices.) Self-realization means literally living out, to the fullest extent possible, who we truly are and what we can achieve–again–in the world. The process is not about self-absorbed naval gazing or egotistical posturing or empty virtue signalling. The critical thing to remember is that what we should be doing with our lives is not something determined by others; it is something important to we ourselves.
Recognizing that we are already the unconscious bearers of a well-developed set of values and a particular world-view is to set ones feet on a gratifying journey to a genuinely spiritual life. The objective here is not to become trendy or politically-correct or “woke”. Conformity of any kind must be rejected (scary stuff, yes?) if one is to uncover and adopt ones own true morality and authentic way of seeing the world. These vital aspects of being human cannot be arbitrarily chosen by us as individuals (being trendy), nor can they be imposed from without by others (being indoctrinated); they must be discovered within ourselves in the unconscious portion of the psyche where they were developed when we were growing up. Following the path into one’s own Self and then living by and for that Self is the very essence of living a spiritual life. After all, we are talking about our own spirits.
Many posts in this blog deal with the various aspects of the process sketchily outlined in the previous paragraphs. You will find them in categories (bottom of the post) such as Jungian Psychology, Mind, Spirituality, and just plain Psychology. Other categories attempt to integrate the core ideas with Creativity, Writing, and Philosophy. If you are feeling confused or threatened by powerful social ideas such as punitive political correctness, aggressive wokeism, divisive critical race theory, and destructive cancel culture–or have been robbed of your peace of mind by actually buying into these contentious notions–you may find balm and solace in what I have written about the things that really matter: will, the self, and the stabilizing spiritual effect of finding and living by your own emotionally important ideas. Rise above being drearily politically correct or “woke” to someone else’s vision; awaken to who you truly are.
Charles Williams was a British polymath combining considerable skills as a poet, novelist, theologian, and literary critic. He was also a valued member of the famed Inklings writing circle and a powerful influence on Narnia creator, C. S. Lewis. Williams’ most famous biographer is Alice Mary Hadfield who, during widely spaced periods in her life, wrote two perceptive critical biographies filled with useful insights concerning his life and work. One of her most revealing penetrations has a bearing on existentialism.
You must regard your own emotionally important ideas with the respect due to proper authority. To be authentic, you must live by these defining and guiding ideas. (Photo: public domain)
The Magic of Findhorn is a magical book. I first read it when it came out in paperback more years ago than I care to remember. For more than a decade, I reread it now and then to savour Hawken’s sweet distillation of the spirit of the time. Those were the heady days of pot-smoking hippies, smiling flower children, and idealistic communes. Findhorn added fairies, giant cabbages, and bushes that got out of the way when you wanted to make a path through them. It was wonderful to imagine that I might run off and join the small band of romantics building a new kind of community on what was once a garbage dump. I never did, of course. Sometimes I think I missed a great chance. Findhorn still exists, although it is now a foundation and calls itself a “New Age” community. Naturally, there is a website.
An enchanting look at an early New Age community in Scotland.
Is it enough to chase happiness in life? Numerous philosophers have argued that, for a deeply satisfying experience of life, something more is required, something founded on substantial personal growth, rather than a preference for a particular ephemeral feeling that manifests in a constant effort to spend a lot of time in the desired emotional state. Is it possible that the “pursuit of happiness,” so central to American, and indeed, much of contemporary Western values, may actually get in the way of attaining life’s greater riches?
A. N. Whitehead said learning is impossible without the desire to learn. This matters because all personal growth requires us to learn something. (Image: public domain)
I have already argued, in “Religious Conversion Can Block Self-Discovery,” that a desire for spiritual salvation in the religious sense can seriously impede a person’s growth process. Here I will make the case that thoughtlessly chasing happiness (in the materialistic sense of money, entertainment, possessions, and social status) has a similar hindering effect. It is worth noting that “the pursuit of happiness” in this mundane manner may be a crude version of the creative person’s sophisticated use of subtle moods or feeling tones to enhance both their creativity and their ability to remain productive.
In their book, Buddhism and Jungian Psychology, analysts J. Marvin Spiegelman and Mokusen Miyuki (who is also a Buddhist priest), mention the danger of “stagnation” following the integration of unconscious contents. This sounds a lot like the stage on the journey to enlightenment the mystics have famously called “the dark night of the soul.” It is the point where a seeker has seen the light, so to speak, but cannot quite believe it yet. This period of deeply troubling doubt and hesitation lasts for an indeterminate length of time until a sufficient level of acceptance has been reached to allow the final enlightenment to dawn, whereupon the ability to feel confident and to act is restored.
The dark night of the soul is a lengthy period of deeply troubling doubt and hesitation. It ends when a sufficient level of acceptance has been reached to allow the final enlightenment to dawn. (Image: public domain)
I am a conservative who, from time to time, gets testy about leftists and enjoys giving them a gentle prod. Today, I am feeling especially annoyed. While watching the news on television, I learned the Ontario government plans to “invest” in solar panels for northern Metis communities so they can generate incredibly costly electricity for themselves and then sell any surplus to the provincial grid at staggering prices. Presumably, the Metis contribution to the “beneficial” project will consist in sweeping snow and ice from the panels during the six hours of feeble winter daylight.
Many conservatives see the UN building in New York as the “Vatican” of the socialist movement. (Image: Wikipedia)
Many people suffer a lack of meaning in their lives, especially in the prosperous countries where the hardships of surviving on a day-by-day basis are not pressing. Decent incomes and the modern social safety net provide leisure time and security while removing the need for the incessant life-sustaining, highly significant activity demanded by dire necessity. For most people in the developed nations, only casual pastimes, meaningless entertainments, or sporadic volunteer work (which someone else could do) remain to fill the void. This situation is regarded as wonderful, yet in reality, it exposes the comfortably well-off to the serious risks of boredom and lack of purpose. It is no accident that suicide and depression rates are high in wealthy nations.
A perceived lack of meaning in life may indicate a desire for a more heroic and glorious way of living. (Image: public domain)
When I first began writing seriously in the early 1990s, I took to reading literary biographies as a way of defining myself as a writer. I was thrilled to find how quickly I recognized my own struggles in the lives of famous authors. I also saw the shared personality traits that prompt certain kinds of people to explore the possibilities of living the artist’s life. Nothing strengthens and focusses an emerging identity more than the chance to identify thoroughly with others who are already there and have blazed the trail, so to speak.
H. G. Wells makes a good role model for the commercially inclined genre writer. (Photo: public domain)
While of limited use to dedicated literary writers, any would-be author who aspires to sell well and achieve wide popularity and respect can profit from studying the life of H. G. Wells. If you wrestle with the common conflict over whether to go literary or commercial with your writing, Wells will prove especially interesting as he wrote, with varying degrees of success, across a number of genres including sci-fi thrillers, novels of ideas, and serious literary novels. The commercial and literary options seemed mutually exclusive to me and trying to decide which way to go affected my writing for years with first one side and then the other gaining ascendancy. In the end, I borrowed a page from Wells’ book. I now wrestle with novels of ideas finding such works to be a satisfying blend of entertaining story and worthwhile philosophical musing.
Lovat Dickson, one of H. G. Wells’ biographers, claimed the literary world does not see Wells as a great writer, adding that the opinion-makers overlook the famous author because he did not write about morals. Dickson’s observation highlights the strong bias among literary critics that works dealing with moral issues are the most worthy of praise. As a result, only works of this kind are long-lived. Some have argued the absence of longevity for other works has more to do with lack of critical promotion and support than a dearth of literary merit. This may well be true, but in real life, human beings are always concerned with the morality of actions, events, and situations so it seems entirely reasonable, inevitable even, that the same concern should apply to fictional portrayals of life and the world.
Moral novels attract wider critical attention and are more likely to achieve longevity. (Image: public domain)
Many famous writers have used the people in their lives as grist for the authorial mill. The spicy roman à clef has long been a frequent visitor to bookshop shelves. Even more common are realistic novels based on the lives of actual people, but where no deliberate effort is made to link with the objects of inspiration. In other words, the real people are convenient sources of material, yet too obscure to be of interest to the reading public. The writer’s own life may also end up on the page. If his own experiences predominate, a struggle with illness, say, we call these works autobiographical novels, but in many cases, the lives of people around the writer are also included and the situation becomes less clear-cut.
D. H. Lawrence was notorious for using lovers, friends, and acquaintances as thinly disguised characters in his sexually explicit novels. (Photo: public domain)
Opinions vary as to the merits of drawing on real people for inspiration. The competing view is that characters are better created from imagination especially for the job of telling a particular story, highlighting some aspect of human nature, or revealing the human condition. The latter being that rather nebulous concept which “includes concerns such as the meaning of life, the search for gratification, the sense of curiosity, the inevitability of isolation, or awareness regarding the inescapability of death” (Wikipedia). A third position, which I am inclined to share, claims pure imagining is impossible.