Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. – Matthew 12:32
I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note–torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one. – Henry Ward Beecher
When we lived in Virginia, there was a notorious case of a family vacationing in Italy. During that time, their child was murdered. Italian police found the killer, put him on trial, and sentenced him. After the sentencing, the parents of the murdered child walked up to this man, hugged him, and told him they forgave him. I would love to say I would be able to do the same thing, but never having been through such a horrible experience, I can only say that I hope I never have to face it. All the same, it’s what we’re called to do.
Forgiveness is difficult in a society that places so much moral weight on blame. Blame, of course, is for children. Ours is, by and large, a country of children, people who allow themselves the luxury of feeling offense and directing their bitterness at all those others who have hurt them. That this is what children do doesn’t seem to matter all that much; it’s all about blame, retribution, and justice is nothing more than revenge. We believe it is perfectly acceptable to kill another human being for all sorts of reasons, for even the slightest infraction against our persons or property. Please don’t carry on about the worth of human life in a society whose actions demonstrate such little care about the lives of others that taking the life of another is something people can do and be excused for.
If blame is for children, responsibility is for adults. Responsibility is owning one’s actions, saying, “Yes, I did this, I did that.” Others may enjoy the luxury of blame. Responsibility is the price a moral individual and society pays for understanding when that person or society has done wrong. Penance is, or at least should be, a part of responsibility; willingly doing something to make amends for actions that cannot be undone.
Speaking only for myself – and this is a Lenten Spiritual exercise, after all; my own and none other’s – I can say that forgiveness comes easily. The largest part of being able to forgive others is understanding oneself as no better – and usually far worse – than the one who might have committed some slight. Being a victim gives one a sense of moral superiority. Knowing that one is, as St. Paul wrote of himself, the greatest of sinners, gives one the kind of honest humility to look at the offenses of others and say, “You are forgiven.”
The hardest thing in the world, however, is to forgive myself. I look around me, offering pardon to any and all who might do the slightest thing, and know that is only because I remember all too well what I have done. My memory is all too clear. There are times that all that is before me are the actions, large and small – the betrayals, the hurtful words, the mean and petty actions – that seem at these times to loom so large as to define who I am. Forgiving myself for these things seems, to me, a cheap way out, a get-out-of-jail card. I have tried to live so much of my life penitently, doing and being better than the person I know myself to be inside, as a way of making up for the hurt I know I have caused; the people from my past who will not speak to me; the people who wear scars I put upon their hearts and lives. I am gentle, I think, because I have been far too rough. I am quick to forgive because whatever hurt occurs to me cannot match those I have caused others.
I read recently that the undefined “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”, quoted above, from St. Matthew’s Gospel, is, in fact, a refusal to forgive oneself. It makes out the whole Gospel a lie, the whole narrative of Divine forbearance, grace, love, and self-sacrifice meaningless if one is not willing to look in the mirror and say, “I forgive you.” To do so, however, just feels to me like a cheap out, a painless and penance-less way of pushing out of one’s mind all the evil of which I know I am capable. Forgiveness offers me a way to stop wrestling the angel without the pain of being hamstrung at the end. Precisely because forgiveness includes forgetting, as noted by Henry Ward Beecher in the quote above, I cannot handle the thought of forgiving myself because should I forget what I have done, it would be all too easy to do it again. And again. I cannot allow that to happen; being a moral person is no guarantee against acting in an immoral fashion. Knowing what is proper to do, yet doing the opposite, well, even St. Paul admitted he did the same.
Perhaps this is why Friedrich Nietzsche detested Christianity so much. For Nietzsche, to be truly human is to be heroic in the way the Greeks understood the concept – willing to be bold in action regardless of consequence. For Nietzsche, the son of an Evangelical Pastor, Christianity insisted we human beings accept a bad conscience as the price of living in the world, something he refused to accept as truly human. For him, weakness thrived where there was a willingness to embrace conventional morality, baptize it as “Christian values”, and live always with shame and guilt.
Were he in front of me today, I would counter by asking, “How is shame, and even a dollop of guilt, not appropriate when one has acted in ways that have hurt others?” I know his answer: Those who were truly hurt are far too weak to be worthy of consideration. Were they strong, they would accept the hurt as a part of human existence, and grow stronger through the experience.
Such a way of thinking about human life leaves far too many bodies in its wake. Our world has suffered far too many mass graves for me to believe it possible any good can come from living without consequence. Perhaps, to one such as Nietzsche, I am the epitome of that slave mentality against which he strove so much. That is neither here nor there to me. Those who revel in their own strength only to use it to destroy others are, to me, the epitome of evil. I want nothing to do with those who would so easily cause destruction and heartache and call it heroism.
Which leaves me back where I began. It is a conundrum I face every day. I know I should forgive myself. I know that if I should, that would include forgetting. Forgetting would open the door, however small the crack, to those parts of me that would like nothing better than to hurt others. So, I refuse to give myself the easy out of forgiveness. I hold myself accountable each day, living in a way that will, I hope, make up for the hurt I’ve caused others in the past. That means living gently. Forgiving others without much thought at all. It means, however, that I may well be committing the unforgivable sin. There are days, however, that I think I can accept that judgment with equanimity.
Forgiveness, after all, is for others. Me, I can’t and shouldn’t be allowed the luxury.
Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agrees with Plato’s analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. – Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p.71 (.pdf)
I was in search of something about the contemporary music concert – rock or hip-hop – as a liturgical experience, when it occurred to me I wanted to reference something from Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind. I was happily surprised to find the entire thing available online as a .pdf document. There are many deeply disturbing aspects to Bloom’s book, but his chapter on music is particularly disturbing not least because of the sheer ignorance he demonstrates on the subject of rock music. To quote both Plato and Nietzsche favorably on the alogon character of music – that it is without reason, and therefore an aspect of human barbarism – demonstrates an enormous ignorance not just of music in general, but the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and even profundity of so much contemporary music, whether it be rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, post-rock, and even country music.
His analysis is not only ignorant, it is elitist, insisting that his students – to whom he expresses joy when he introduces them to Mozart – suddenly find themselves in a completely different world, ignoring the fact that Mozart, no less than the Rolling Stones, is alogon, perhaps just a tad more refined barbarism. Considering Mozart’s lifestyle, that isn’t too far off the mark, either. As a description of the philosophical position regarding music through Nietzsche, the following is a generally true thumbnail, although not without veering off-base by missing so much of the Christian and Muslim discussions of music during the High Middle Ages:
Classical philosophy did not censor the singers. It persuaded them. And it gave them a goal, one that was understood by them, until only yesterday. But those who do not notice the role of music in Aristotle and despise it in Plato went to school with Hobbes, Locke and Smith, where such considerations have become unnecessary. The triumphant Enlightenment rationalism thought that it had discovered other ways to deal with the irrational part of the soul, and that reason needed less support from it. Only in those great critics of Enlightenment and rationalism, Rousseau and Nietzsche, does music return, and they were the most musical of philosophers. Both thought that the passions— and along with them their ministerial arts—had become thin under the rule of reason and that, therefore, man himself and what he sees in the world have become correspondingly thin. They wanted to cultivate the enthusiastic states of the soul and to re-experience the Corybantic possession deemed a pathology by Plato. Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. (p.73)
From there, however, he turns off the path in to Lala Land in the paragraph immediately following:
This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. Modern-day rationalists, such as economists, are indifferent to it and what it represents. The irrationalists are all for it. There is no need to fear that “the blond beasts” are going to come forth from the bland souls of our adolescents. But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire—not love, not ems, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later. (op. cit.)
It’s like Bloom heard Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go” and decided that was all he needed to know. For a philosopher, a paragraph such as the above is deeply disturbing, presenting ignorance as wisdom, facile description with penetrating insight, and ancient philosophy as somehow relevant to our contemporary, post-Industrial capitalist age.
The following paragraph, from page 74, is both disturbing and ironic, considering it was written by a deeply closeted gay man who never married, raised a family, and seems to have been attracted to, ahem, younger men.
Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family. This has a much more powerful effect than does pornography on youngsters, who have no need to watch others do grossly what they can so easily do themselves. Voyeurism is for old perverts; active sexual relations are for the young. All they need is encouragement.
While I do not dispute that sex is a large part of rock, hip-hop, and country music, ’twas ever thus with folk music. Rock and its variants is little more than our folk music, with occasional pretensions to be something more. Whether it was the risque blues, the bawdy songs of the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia that eventually morphed in to country and western, or something more explicit like the following:
What is made explicit in Nine Inch Nails was always present in “Handyman Blues” or any of a hundred bawdy Mountain Songs. This is hardly a mark against it. It is, rather, a way of seeing what role the music and its variants play in our current society. Oh, and I’m quite sure Mozart would have appreciated “Closer”, if for no other reason than he came very close in some of his operas to writing those very same lyrics.
My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music— whether it leads to sex, violence or drugs. The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education. The first sensuous experiences are decisive in determining the taste for the whole of life, and they are the link between the animal and spiritual in us. The period of nascent sensuality has always been used for sublimation, in the sense of making sublime, for attaching youthful inclinations and longings to music, pictures and stories that provide the transition to the fulfillment of the human duties and the enjoyment of the human pleasures. Lessing, speaking of Greek sculpture, said “beautiful men made beautiful statues, and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” This formula encapsulates the fundamental principle of the esthetic education of man. Young men and women were attracted by the beauty of heroes whose very bodies expressed their nobility. The deeper understanding of the meaning of nobility comes later, but is prepared for by the sensuous experience and is actually contained in it. What the senses long for as well as what reason later sees as good are thereby not at tension with one another. Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art. Now we have come to exactly the opposite point. Rock music encourages passions and provides models that have no relation to any life the young people who go to universities can possibly lead, or to the kinds of admiration encouraged by liberal studies. Without the cooperation of the sentiments, anything other than technical education is a dead letter. (pp.79-80)
One can still find critiques of contemporary music that mirror Bloom’s, although they are given far less credence than was once the case. Except, alas, within our churches, where the examination of the music is both ignorant and superficial; examples are often of the most extreme genres – death metal and urban/gangsta rap are two favorites in this regard – without regard to context; and rather than actually engaging what our young – and older – people are actually hearing and listening to, we receive repeated condemnations, not just of popular musics, but attempts to “baptize” them and bring them in to our worship spaces and provide congregations with a musical style that is familiar and up-to-date, as opposed to organs that, for all their beauty and the fullness of their sound, are ancient instruments that are as much of a turn-off as contemporary instrumentation is for some older folks in churches.
It is important to go through Bloom’s nonsense, if we are going to make any headway in understanding where we in the churches are in our discussions regarding music, liturgy, and theology. Bloom’s pernicious influence is still there, poisoning far too many minds with its non-contextual rejection of a music about which he knows nothing, the spiritual and intellectual content of which continues to impress (with the occasional exception of bands like Insane Clown Posse, with their now-infamous line, “Fucking gravity, how does it work?”). That Bloom’s idea of “liberal education” is even more dated than his view of music should strike few as surprising. A professor of the classics, Bloom was far more comfortable in the male-dominated cultures of ancient Greece, in particular, where maleness and homosexuality were not just celebrated but encouraged (just read Plato’s Symposium in which Socrates admits sleeping with the most beautiful young man in Greece, although not having sexual relations with him as a sign not of his moral but intellectual superiority). Bloom was far more comfortable with the comfortable illusion that certain kinds of orchestral music were superior to the popular musics of the west, even as such a view would certainly have surprised the composers of such music. We in the church suffer from similar illusions, similarly misinformed, similarly expressed. Only by moving through the obvious errors in Bloom can we start to move the conversation forward.
Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche
I spent the past hour reading through this post and the comment section and two pieces that are linked in the first comment. It has occurred to me over the past several months as I’ve tried to fight my way back to something resembling healthy, and spent the past three or four weeks struggling just to maintain something a bit better than full-fledged recurrence of the depression with which I lived through the winter, that there are so many confessionals about depression and the emotional content – and the two from Hyperbole And A Half capture exactly how I lived in the months up to my decision to seek help – but very little detailing what it is like to work through the the decision to end one’s life. I’ve heard a few, including one from a man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived, talking about how once he was off the ledge he instantly regretted it; that kind of thing isn’t really informative or helpful. It is, in fact, yet another desire to seek a happy ending to a story that may or may not have one.
What follows is deeply personal. It is also difficult, if for no other reason than in revisiting a part of my very recent past in which I lived in near-constant interior agony that is impossible to communicate to others, it is much like battling Nietzsche’s monsters: I do not wish to do so because those monsters can take over your life way too easily. It is also difficult to do because I have family members who might read this. Finally, it is difficult because it is deeply shaming. Ours is a society that does not tolerate sadness, let alone an illness like depression that makes sadness look like a small cloud briefly in front of the sun. To advertise that one spent several weeks trying to work out the logistics of self-caused death is to exclude oneself from American society in a way that violates so many unspoken, unanalyzed taboos, it is frightening. Yet, it is a reality with which I lived, and about which I have not spoken except in generalities – “I’ve been contemplating suicide” – but should be talked about. I’m not doing it in the hope or desire for sympathy; I’m not even doing it for understanding. I’m doing this to help someone, even just one person, who may well be standing at the edge, looking in to that darkness below, thinking how wonderful that darkness will be, especially considering the hellish pain that is each living moment, and let them know (if it is possible; it isn’t always possible) they are not alone.
As February passed to March, I found myself more than once staring at Facebook, contemplating what to put as my status, and wanting to just shout out my pain. Other times, I just wanted to type, “FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK!!!”, and would start to giggle, thinking, “That’ll shock ’em.” I backed away from doing either only because I wondered about the reaction I’d get: “He’s sick.”; “Something’s wrong with him.” The last thing I wanted, at that point, was anyone to know just how lost I was. Locked inside myself, reaching out even in some extreme way, was not what I wanted.
Once the word “suicide” entered my head and I stripped it of any and all negative connotations, it almost immediately became a matter of logistics. As the father of two children, I only really has one rule: I did not want my children either to find me, or to see me in death. Even in the midst of my depression, my love for my children was so profound I wanted to make sure they never had the experience far too many children of suicides have. That ruled out a death at home, or at least a death at home that would be discovered by them rather than my wife*. Since we do now own any firearms, I think I was fortunate, because a quick trip up Perryville Rd. to Rock Cut State Park, a walk off the path, and the whole thing would have ended quickly, messily, and far enough from home that in all likelihood a member of law enforcement would have found what was left. At the same time, not owning a firearm forced me to be creative both in doing what I desperately wanted to do – end the pain that was my life without causing additional pain to those closest to me. Such creativity led to experimenting.
My commute to work included a roughly 10 mile drive down one particular stretch of country road that is little used. This past winter, much of that road was ice-covered, or pack-snow-covered, making it slick in a variety of places. It would be easy enough, I thought, to make it look like I hit a patch of ice going a bit too fast, and that would be that. All it would take is unbuckling my seat belt before doing so. Sure, the car had an airbag. An airbag without a seatbelt, however, wouldn’t be much help, especially if the car rolled, which I learned how to do by thinking about things like angular momentum. With the front wheels turned in to a skid at, say, 65 or 70 miles an hour, hitting a large, packed snow embankment – or even better, a ditch full of snow – almost completely sideways, the car would probably have rolled several times, bounding me around inside quite nicely enough to do severe damage. Being on a seldom-used country road would mean not being found right away. In the deep cold of this past winter. With help in the form of an ambulance crew, with a fire crew to help get me out of the tangled up mess of my car even further away. Time, in cases like this, is always of the essence. It would look like an accident. Even if I survived, I was guaranteed weeks if not months of recovery time, during which I would have medications at my disposal that, if taken in large enough doses, would finish the job with the simple expedient of falling asleep.
It seemed like a clean enough plan. I am a thorough person, however, so, about a week before I confessed to my wife and started seeking help, I did what I called “a trial run”. I didn’t unbuckle my seat belt, I drove much more slowly, and on a spot on the road that was clear enough of ice that, if I wanted, I could regain control of my car. Off to work I went, down the road I drove, I started to drift ever-so-slightly to the right. Almost immediately, driving instinct took over and I forced the car back on the road. Damn it, I thought. A few miles further up the road, I tried again, and sure enough, driving instinct took over and I yet again regained control of my car. I pulled over to the side of the road and started crying. I couldn’t even do something as simple as this right, without my instinct to save myself taking over from my far deeper need just to end my pain, the misery of each moment of my life. It served as an occasion to berate myself even more: I was a failure at all else in my life; I was now a failure at ending it, even though I had reached the point where death seemed so welcoming.
I spent a few days running through new options in my head. I realized all I had left would violate the one rule I had set for myself. Then came the moment when I decided to tell my wife what was going on. One of the things I said was, “I do not want to hurt myself or anyone else.” The first part of that sentence was a lie. Not only did I want to hurt myself; I wanted to die. The second part, however, was true. Not in the sense that I would have killed the rest of my family along with myself. No, I realized that the only suicide options open to me were to do so at home, always risking discovery by my daughters. I did not want to do that. In a very real sense, my love for my children saved my life, although at the time it felt far more like my existence as a failed human being – I couldn’t even do suicide right, for Christ’s sake! – was the reason I had that talk with my wife and ended up seeking help.
In the months since then, I have replayed those last couple weeks over and over in my head. When I told my wife and my doctor I was “no more than a week or two away from a suicide attempt”, it was the thought that suicide had become my goal and I might just say, “Fuck it,” to my rule about my kids finding me and do something at home that explained that phrase. I had been contemplating suicide, in a practical way, for weeks. It was the reality that I couldn’t do so without my kids probably being the ones to find me that made me realize I had to do something. Not some desire to live. Not a desire to get better. Not some inkling that I had something for which to live. It would be weeks before I thought I wanted, or could, get better. It would be weeks before I had any desire to live. No, my seeking help was not from some spark of hope in some part of my psyche. It was a sense of utter failure, even at killing myself, that prompted me to confess in general terms, about my condition.
I am on the far side of the worst of all this. I no longer think about killing myself, at least not much. The past month or so has taught me that recovery is neither linear nor, despite what both my physician and therapist have told me, within a reasonable time frame. Depression, like cancer, can go in to remission only to emerge again, insidious and violent as ever. The difference now is I want to live. There is still a lot of pain. I am fighting it now, though, because even though I’m not sure what the word “hope” refers to, I do want to continue living, even with the pain, to watch my daughter graduate from high school next spring; to go to Disney World again next spring; maybe – just maybe – to see something I’ve written get published by someone else. I want to wake up next to my wife, feel her warmth, the softness of her skin. And of course there’s music; for me there is always music.
Which reminds me. I was going to post a video for Metallica’s “Fade To Black”, but that’s really more a piece of juvenalia. Then I considered Lunatic Soul’s “Summerland”, a song about that supposed twilight zone between life and what comes next. Then, I realized, no – that’s not where I’m at. Instead, here’s Felix Medelssohn-Bartoldy’s setting for Psalm 100, which begins: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. /Worship the Lord with gladness;/ come into his presence with singing.”
*Yes, I know, allowing my wife to find my dead body would have been horrible. I rationalized that by insisting that, as an adult, she would recover from the experience in a way my children would not. Being depressed is not rational.
[I]f you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche
There is a concept from the ancient Greeks the Christian churches continue to use. It is anamnesis, which can be too facilely translated as “remembering”. Anamnesis is more than just the mental or verbal recall of words or events from the past. It is an active participation in those acts in the past by those in the present. The archetype of anamnesis in the life of the church is the Eucharist.
The flip-side of anamnesis is prolepsis. This is not just a thinking about some thing that might happen in “the future”. In a very real sense it is here and now enacting an event that is happening in God’s future. Again, the paradigmatic proleptic event in the life of the church is the Eucharist.
On Good Friday, we have an instance where both anamnesis and prolepsis occur. As we stand at the look upon an image of Jesus hanging on the cross, we are not just thinking about an event in the past. We are, in God’s reality, there, our eyes fixed upon the broken and bleeding body before us.
What do we see? In faith, we see not just a tortured human being. We see and hear and smell the abandonment and emptiness that should be our lot. This is part of the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, enacted in a more stark, naked way. When we look upon the dead Jesus, we are looking at the emptiness that should be our lot, the judgment that should sit upon us.
We are also seeing ourselves before the Throne of God, the judgment laid upon us yet taken up in what the author of Revelation says is “the Lamb who was slain”. The judgment of God is the grace of God, enacted on the cross for us. Through no act of ours, not acceptance, not good and right living, not moral uprightness, not the pursuit of justice, we stand before the Divine Judge “without one plea”, as the hymn says. Yet, we need no plea because the cost is paid, the victory won, and our place at the table set for us.
Nietzsche’s abyss is the emptiness of existence, an emptiness that can swallow us if we have no reed upon which to lean, nothing to grasp and keep us from tumbling in to the nothingness that will swallow us whole. When we on Good Friday gaze upon the broken, tortured corpse of Jesus of Nazareth, “King Of The Jews”, we are also looking in to an abyss. This is an abyss far worse than the hollowness of human life here and now without salvation, without hope, with only the monsters we contemplate ready to claim us as their own. This abyss is the Godlessness of Divine abandonment, the judgment of a just God upon human sin, yet redeemed for us by this same God who takes that abandonment, death, and judgment up in the Divine life and makes it Holy. We should weep, to be sure, for the price paid for our sin and evil. Yet, we should also rejoice because this abyss, for all its eternal emptiness, is filled with the Light of the World, a beautiful abyss that transforms our lives and grants us hope.