Monday, November 2, 2009

In Search of Your Spirit

Given my concerns I cannot very well ignore a New York Times post entitled: "Kierkegaard on the Couch." Therein, Prof. Gordon Marino offers some reflections on the difference between depression and despair. The latter, according to the Danish philosopher, is the sickness-unto-death. Link here.

I will confess to you that when I first read it, the post felt confusing and somewhat obscure. I was also surprised to read that Prof. Marino, seemed to believe that despair is one of the seven deadly sins. How could I trust a philosophy professor who did not know that the seven deadly sins were: pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, avarice, and sloth?

Upon further research I discovered that at one time in the distant past despair was one of the deadly sins. It was simply replaced by the sin of sloth. It refers to listlessness, laziness, and apathy.

On matters theological I make it a habit also to look up what Thomas Aquinas has to say. Interestingly enough, Aquinas did not merely consider despair to be a rather nasty sin, but he considered in the greatest sin. Link here.

Aquinas considered despair to be even worse than unbelief because despair was the loss of hope in redemption. And, if you lose hope in future redemption, he wrote, you are liable to indulge every manner of sin and vice. In his words: "... by hope we are called back from evils and induced to strive for what is good, and if hope is lost, men fall headlong into vices, and are taken away from good works."

Intriguing thought. If you prefer, you can remove the theological flavor and see that people fall into despair when they have no hope for a better tomorrow. Despair is intimately connected with pessimism.

Yet, if this is true, it also means that you should be very wary of following the injunction to live in the present. If you abandon hope for a better future, you are risking a quick descent into risky and asocial behaviors.

In modern psychiatric parlance, people who are in despair (or even depression) for having lost hope are prone to self-medicate through irrational behaviors.

Be that as it may, Marino argues, after Kierkegaard, that despair is to the spirit as depression is to the brain.

Considering that so many people are trying to get in touch with their spiritual side these days, this is surely a relevant question. People who set out in search of their spirit are looking for something to give a higher meaning or a higher purpose to their lives. That is to say, something beyond the mindless pursuit of material goods.

These notions are so popular that they must be easily intelligible. For some reason, I find the terms difficult to grasp. I will explain why.

Start with the distinction between mind and spirit and soul. The French word "esprit" means both spirit and mind. You yourself might have spirit, but a spirit is also an angelic being. The French use another word for the soul.

In Greek the word "psyche" means either mind or soul, depending on whom you ask. The Greek word "pneuma" means spirit, but it also means breath. The Latin word for spirit is "spiritus" while the word "anima" means soul. One of the persons of the trinity is variously called the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit.

Since breath is essential to life, it is reasonable to understand spirit as something like a life force. When you stop breathing, you lose both your life and your spirit, simultaneously.

Worse yet, when we speak of spirituality we are usually speaking of something whose province is religion. Thus, the spiritual becomes a quality of the soul.

If that is not sufficiently confusing, Marino notes that Kierkegaard and others of his ilk believe that your spirit is your Self. You have an identity as a spiritual, not a material being.

But that would mean that your Self is your life, and this does not make a great deal of sense, to me at least. Feeling alive is not quite the same thing as feeling like me.

Even if you say that your Self is a state of consciousness of having always been the same person and of possessing that person's experiences, that is still not the same thing as having an identity recognized by anyone else.

Be all of that as it may, when you instruct someone to go out in search of his spirit, you are telling him to look into his soul or mind to discover the source of his vitality. You discover your spirit by introspecting.

Kierkegaard also seems to believe that your spirit is a bulwark against death. By becoming aware of our mortality, he seems to be saying, we can get in touch with the spirit that is moving us to feel alive.

For my part I prefer identifying the Self with your Self with your face, as Chinese culture has, thus as an outward appearance, visible to others, but never directly to yourself, that identifies you as a social being.

So, we have two alternative concepts of despair. In the one you feel despair because you do not feel completely and fully alive. In the other, the one that I prefer, you feel despair because you feel disconnected.

In fact, a spiritual journey that causes you to disconnect from your community is not, in my opinion, going to relieve your feelings of despair. To my mind, it is philosophical or psychotherapeutic snake oil.

I believe that there is a risk in the implicit counsel to go it alone on this journey toward your spirituality. I am equally doubtful about the value of doing it with a single guide, like a psychotherapist.

After all, if you want to get in touch with the spiritual side of life, why not do it in the company of others, within a religious institution.

Were it not for the fact that Romantic poets convinced us all that organized religion is an obscenity, people who want to find their spirit or their soul would repair to churches or synagogues. Religion is in the business of spirituality, but it does so within the context of a community and a congregation.

Given that humans are social beings, people who find their spiritual side on their own will not be able to keep it to themselves, and will not long remain isolated. They are especially prone to be drawn in cults.

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