Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
May 2017 - Volume 17, No. 5
“Honor Everything - Despise Nothing”
[Summary:This is not just a naïve optimism, nor an argument for passivity - but a pattern of rigorous engagement in and for the sake of the world that holds fast the hope of all that is best in the human race.]
I don’t recall when I first heard these words - and it might have been only once. But, they’ve stayed with me for many years and re-emerge with a frequency that denotes a deep resonance of truth. Yet at times the hidden wisdom of those words will compel me in ways that, at first, seem the opposite of their surface meaning.
Perhaps it means this: Everything in this universe of our life has purpose, or a purpose, or is a part of a greater purpose. And it’s meant for each of us to have and work our part in it.
I hear many people, especially in my professional life, frequently question their “life purpose,”a reason for their existence. That’s often a major element in psychotherapy. It goes hand in hand with the quest for the meaning of our own life experiences - chiefly when dealing with hardship or the question of suffering. Paradoxically it’s also part of a search for ‘happiness.’
Guilt and Shame
There are those who, at least in moments of self-reflection, may say “I hate myself.” It’s as if there are parts of themselves they wish to break off and discard. A frequent example, “I want to get rid of my anger,” or my negativity, or weight, or a perceived disability, or a particular personality or history. We will Despise those things or parts of ourselves that seem to cause separation from more positive benefits of “a good life.”
Guilt, a major element of American value systems, can have purpose in leading us to change a behavior, to redress a wrong. It may have its roots in religious beliefs, to lead folks to a closer relationship with the transcendent (God).
Shame, on the other hand, is meant to be permanent, with the purpose of exclusion from general society. You can never walk out of a “penitentiary” experience fully free.
For those who carry guilt or shame, there is no “life purpose” that can ignore those burdens. We have two choices: We can 1) accept it as an ordeal from which we can emerge with ‘gifts of purpose’ for ourselves and the larger community, or 2) use it as a burden or trouble we can project onto others so that they suffer in our stead. The latter, especially when unconscious, can be the cause of much innocent suffering in the world.
I recall my delight when I first discovering this arcade game at my local Chuck E. Cheese, back when my children were young. It’s an excellent metaphor for Freud’s seminal theory of neurotic behavior. What you repress, goes underground and in time will show up somewhere else (and in psychology each time more disguised). The more energy used to repress, the more neurotic the patient.
The arcade game is often located in the foyer of the building, before entering the main dining (joyful eating and drinking) space. To me it’s similar to the baptismal font in a church representing the ‘entrance’ into the ‘banquet of grace.’ (Oh well, I thought it was a funny analogy.)
One secret of mental health is to bypass or forego opportunities and temptations to project our own darkness onto others, which would otherwise give ourselves an artificial (neurotic) freedom, gained at the expense of burdening others. (I could go a lot farther here, but this seems sufficient for the moment.)
Yet, you can rest assured the next time I’m at a Chuck E. Cheese; I’ll probably take some delight in “mole-whacking” (as well as enjoying some pizza and a beer).
In my exploration of indigenous cultures, I have appreciated their ability to give honor to all Creation. When the Native American would hunt buffalo, he’d ask (pray to) the Buffalo Spirit to allow him (honoring) to take a buffalo in order to feed and otherwise provide for his people through the times (i.e. perhaps through the Winter) ahead. And in turn the petitioner would promise to make honorable use of all useable parts of the animal gift.
I feel a great sadness that we, the consumer-dominant culture of our land, have lost so much of this “honor everything” tradition.
The Temptation of Passivity
One temptation in our culture is to use this guidance as an invitation to passivity. There are those voices that will say, “it’s all good - everything will turn out fine.” Like Robert Browning’s Pippa, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.”
The other side of passivity is the nihilist. When in doubt, do nothing. Perhaps the world is totally corrupt, or the end of the world is imminent, we can (or choose to) do nothing but wait. As if it’s all been pre-ordained or pre-damned at this point. For example, climate change means nothing about any responsibility on our part. This is where Marx’s critique of religion as “the opiate of the masses” has its roots. There’s the destructive naiveté of Hitler’s cleansing Germany by purging all non-Aryans, of President Nixon’s ‘war on drugs,’ and currently President Trump’s plan to rid the country of crime by cleansing the country of immigrants. (It surely helped him get elected!)
This is why we should always be wary of any political leader who’s rallying cry is “Follow me, I’ll take care of it for you.” Running a country is hard work - it takes all the people working together on behalf of everybody else. Being a democracy is very hard work. It’s always a precarious endeavor, especially when we’re tempted to sit back and give away our citizen power, hard won for us by our ancestors, to somebody else. And in our time especially, that “somebody else” will in truth usually have little true care for our most vulnerable.
Yes, there is a time for serious contending, and especially in these current times of turmoil and change. My mentor, Michael Meade, in his most recent online essay reminds us “There are things in this world that deserve no mercy and the top three may just be hypocrisy, fraud, and tyranny.”
Contending, though often radical, doesn’t mean hatred. It means wrestling to keep the avenues open to that which is the best for all humanity, honoring the best of who we can be, and the best of those who have gone before us.
The Hard Work and High Purpose
I think of the mothers of soldiers in battle who while praying for the safety and safe return of their sons and daughters, will also pray for those on the other side, the “enemy” and their mothers and families as well.
Honoring everything, despising nothing can be a lot of work, often very difficult work. That’s also why therapy, either physical or psychological, is such hard work.
It’s much easier to kill an enemy when we hate/despise him. Many a true soldier knows that temptation and struggle. Some gun owners contemplate that having a gun can elevate self- protection to a much higher standard of social order.
When in doubt, carry guns and build walls. “When will we ever learn!”
I like honor everything, despise nothing because it keeps us within the best of being human, it counters the narcissism of the worship of the self, and it keeps open the ideal of a world community that can care for each other through its many differences.
As I look around at so much of what seems to be going wrong these days, it’s maybe the only workable antidote to further destruction.