J u s t T h i n k i n g
Some days you’re just thinking along and something gels. Here are some of those moments for me.
I was just trying to help. We all were. We wanted to protect her. She is nearly 83. She laughs that she is pigeoned-toed and only found out in her 60s (really), and now understands why she falls over the dishwasher door and trips up the stairs and slams into table legs and gets caught in throw rugs. Good, I thought. Always super to know why about things. Whenever.
It’s the what that gets me. I’d been ‘trying to help’ my belovéd big sister for so many decades it had become my fingerprint response to her every injury, illness or whammy. It also had justified my judgement when in the middle of any of those she would decide to keep going, accommodating them as if they had not happened. Sure, she saw her doctors for some of them, and her brilliant osteopath and her very own physical workout expert. But mostly, vastly mostly, she just went on with her extremely active life.
‘Self-care, where are youuuuuu’? I want to shout.
And sometimes I came close. I certainly huffed – self-righteous, definite. Right. And I advised. With a vengeance. For me advising is like flooring the accelerator and hoping the cops are on their break. I know it is wrong, okay, I really do. But with her I often override it. Trying to help.
Then last week, in the middle of one of my controlled advisory tirades of helping, I heard her say, ‘I love my life as I have never loved it’. She started to cry. ‘I could never have imagined', she said, ‘that I would be doing what I am doing now. I am becoming acquainted with a part of me I did not even know existed, not in this particular way. I am feeling up to going to all my things today, but all of you think that is stupid, that I am wrong for being so active after experiencing pain like that.’ She paused. ‘And I don’t want to risk alienating you,’ she said.
I don’t want to risk alienating you. Jeepers. God, I thought. In fact, it must have been ‘God’ who right then in that very second descended into my dumbo, entitled brain and shook me and said, ‘She has a right to her own decisions no matter what the risk. She is not stupid. She is assessing the risk. She is being careful. She is different from you. But she is entirely equal to you.
‘And she surpasses you in her knowledge of what she actually needs, in her soul, not just in her body. So buzz off'. (‘God’ is unlikely that rude, but then again she/he might be, for cases like me.)
Wondrously, I heard myself say, tenderly, ‘Merl, if you knew that, after getting as much accurate information as you can, you are the only one who can know what choice is best for you, and that being true to your core self is worth the risk of alienating us, what would you do today? And how would you feel?’
She cried again. This time the blissful kind, the relieved, elegant kind of crying. The thank-you, thank-you, thank-you kind.
The next day she said she felt ‘empowered’. She felt smart. She felt wonderful. And that she was being very careful, taking care, caring for herself. Caring.
I got it. And I praised whatever had moved my mouth from injury to inquiry so that I could care, too. About her. About her.
Then out of whatever that famous ‘blue’ is (providence: does it ever fatigue?) a dear friend sent me a link to a philosopher I had not heard of before, Farbod Akhlaghi. What he said was so exactly salient I’d thought he must have been listening in. He captured it. The thing in Merl I had suddenly honoured, the thing I have known and taught and researched in a different context with a different name for forty years, but had forgotten; the thing that mysteriously kicked in, so that I magically, unaccountably, instantly became my better self and could formulate that question for her. And shut up. So she could thrive. Akhlaghi captured it.
He calls it, ‘revelatory autonomy ’. (Isn’t that beautiful?) He defines it as:
‘The moral right to decide autonomously to discover how one’s life will go and who one will become by making a transformative choice.’
And as for us on the sidelines pretending to be the ever-ready medic team:
'We have a ‘moral duty not to interfere in the autonomous self-making of others, through their choosing to undergo transformative experiences to discover who they will become’.
Basically, Merl has the moral right to her own autonomy, to make her own choices that can reveal who she is and will become. We do not have the moral right to stop her. Or to judge her.
He goes on:
‘It is not the value of making a choice as such but, rather, that of autonomously making choices to learn what our core preferences and values will become. For autonomously making transformative choices when facing them, deciding for ourselves to learn who we will become, gives us a degree of self-authorship.
‘And some degree of self-authorship in this sense is crucial for us and others to see ourselves as ourselves – selves we have become at least partly through transformative choices we have made. It is the value of autonomously self-making that grounds the right to revelatory autonomy.’
And yes, he covers the ‘yes but’, the inevitable: ‘Isn’t it “permissible to interfere with another’s transformative choice when it is in the best interests of that person for you to do so”’?
Nope. He says that the problem with that view is that:
‘We can know what the interest of the future selves are and whether one’s present interests will be fulfilled only after a transformative choice has been made.’
We cannot know that ahead of their choice. ‘It’s in your best interest’ just won’t cut it any more. Darn.
Actually, yippee, hooray and hallelujah. Merl can choose. She must choose.
‘But,’ you are about to ask, ‘what about murderers who want to hack up their neighbours to have the transformative experience of seeing what it is like to become a person who hacks up their neighbours?’
That’s different. Akhlaghi says, even without rolling his eyes, that we do have a moral right to curtail a person’s autonomous choice-making if the choices will without question harm others.
Now what about the ‘after getting as much accurate information as you can’ part of my question for Merl? Is information necessary for revelatory autonomy to take place? I think so. We have to know what’s what before we can choose whatever. I think Akhlaghi would agree. Certainly he asserts that rational persuasion of just the Goldilocks kind – neither too soon nor too forceful nor too imperious – is not an inevitable interference with another’s autonomous choices. But Goldilocks, remember, was a paragon of pickiness. So I’d spend a lot of time with a good microscope at the first sign of a ‘rational persuasion’ urge.
But, you may say if you have read Akhlaghi, he was talking about young adults, people just venturing into a grownup life, a life full of choices not yet made that will shape and reveal who they will become. And Merl, you will be thinking, is 83.
I say fiercely, it doesn’t matter. In fact, they are the same thing. 18 is the same as 83. Both are moments – because every age, every second of life is such a moment – of starting. Every moment is brand new and the future beyond it is unknown. What comes next is tabula rasa, poised for the first pen stroke. There is no such thing as a written past preventing a fresh future. The future by definition is fresh, and that is that.
So, why do we think that because someone is 83, they no longer have the moral right to make their own choices, they no longer get to find new dimensions of themselves, to transform themselves, to experience revelation about their core, about who they will become? Since when did an 83-year-old turn into a 3-year-old? Since when did any adult, because of age, lose their capacity for ‘transformative self-authorship’? And at what age would you start snatching away that right from a person? 80? 75? 69?
Since when did it become certain that choice-making by old people is no longer worth the risk of harm? Who’s to say what revelatory dimension of one’s core self is not worth that risk?
In fact, how much irreparable harm do we inflict when we claim to know better than someone else what self-authoring, revelatory autonomous choices they should make? When do people stop becoming?
How do we measure harm to the soul?
Let Him Be
Poor Christ. I feel for him. In my heart I shout, ‘Christianity, back off and let him be. Stop in your Sunday tracks and notice him’. Him. Take off your robes and see him.
He was enough, don’t you think? Just him. Just his uncapitalised, be-sandled, chiton-ed nomad self, that searching, teaching, healing, transforming, suffering-of-the-little-children, seeing self. Wasn’t his understanding of love enough?
Wasn’t only one line, in fact, of his message on the mountain, enough? Wasn’t ‘Love your enemies’ enough for uncountable lifetimes?
Christopher and I are watching a new (2023) BBC documentary about Putin. It opens with video of him striding solo on alabaster and onyx, through enfilades, passing pilasters, cornices and maiolica onto miles of red into the luminescence of two thousand worshippers exultant, privileged to prostrate their lifted-up earlier worker selves to magnify him, to get a peek. This vault of vulgarity is a vapid vestige of the idea of dignity and equality for the vilified poor, the despised and rejected majority. Wasn’t that little-c communist thought, that vision, that urge enough? An idea impossibly, and thus wonderfully, worthy? Worth even coming close? Even for a moment? I guess not. They moved it all into their PalaceChurches, laying red all the way to their pulpits.
I see Putin, and I think of us. He and we had a duty, and we failed. We had a body of thought to embody. We had the very same majority cast-asides to embrace and raise up, but we raised altars and chalices instead. We stayed outside the idea by standing inside the palazzo.
Both entreaties to love fell into the churning, chomping, insatiable spitting vat of grandeur. Before Christ had been dead a second (293 years), out came the places of worship, and soon the marble and gilt and balustrades and colonnades and sculpted fenestrations, the chasubles, the thrones, the fonts, the funny-hatted guards, the turrets with tea cosy tops, the sceptres to separate untouchables from untouchables, processions through glazed halls around gluey-eyed gargoyles and into infallible Authority.
We defiled the christian idea in all its forms through all our forms.
Can we please go back?
Can we just sit on a log somewhere among the Trilliums and think about ‘Love your enemies’?
Can we do that even once before we die?
Can we stay home just one Sunday and do that? Or gather plainly with others in silence and do that?
Which enemy would you choose to love? And how will you know when you’ve loved them?
Would you ever need robes, crowns, crosses, stained glass, genuflection, pews and their brass dedications, aisles or even candles again?
We say we worship the message of love. Then let’s embody it. Let’s sit down until we love someone we loathe.
Would we ever get up?
I’m not a fan of acceptance. It is highly regarded, I know. I’ve been reading about it again (it crops up everywhere) in a 20th century devotional, enjoining us to accept suffering, ‘nay to embrace it’, as the only sure path to God’s grace, and to the only sure joy: the after-death variety.
It’s been that kind of week.
But I also encounter this injunction to accept suffering during much saner weeks and in completely uncalcified places. It has a big following. People even take classes in it and practically march in philosophical, spiritual streets for it.
But I don’t buy it. Not as an emotional state to aspire to.
Yes, if it is the acceptance of external circumstances in this moment for what they actually are – denial begone – then fine. Good. Great. March.
But if it is the acceptance of some ‘inevitable’ inner emotional state in response to those circumstances; if it is ‘making peace’ with keen discomfort, or fear, or grief or worry because ‘that feeling is natural in these circumstances’ and so in these circumstances we have no agency, no power, no way to dissipate those feelings? Forget it.
Humans are hardwired to face what is verifiably real, to accept it (on the road to changing it when possible), to express vigorously whatever un-joyful feelings arise in the facing of it, to find and replace any untrue assumptions that have given rise to those feelings and then fairly quickly to regain joy.
Joy is the natural default, the built-in state of the human being. Woe is only a natural response to threatening circumstances (or to the lived-as-true untrue assumption of threatening circumstances). Woe as a natural response is intended to be acknowledged honestly and expressed fully and then, its expression having produced healing, it is to be on its way, replaced vigorously by joy.
If I sound confident about this, I am. If nothing else, current medical understanding of the human immune system tells us all we need to know about joy. Joy produces immunity. Woe depletes it. Joy, therefore, lengthens life. Woe shortens it. Joy we must embrace. Woe we must replace.
So our job, it seems to me, is not to accept woe as even an occasionally decreed state. Our job is to dislodge it and return to joy. Then our job is to negotiate any real threat, meet its challenges and reconfigure our lives.
Simply put, there is nowhere in the human design an inevitable requirement of victimhood. Even the victimhood of acceptance of woe. There is instead (and wonderfully) the built-in inner power to regain inner power. The power, as Wendell Berry said, to ‘choose joy, having considered all the facts’.
William Blake said it, too:
Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.
Life loves fine lines. And this is one.