What Makes Life Significant, Part 2

What Makes Life Significant, Part 2

William James’s favorite among his briefer pieces was a lecture-transcribed-into-essay entitled “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” It is, according James biographer Robert Richardson, what “Self-Reliance “ is to Emerson and “Song of Myself” to Whitman. It is a characteristically straightforward as well as literary piece in which Robert Louis Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, and, especially, James’s ever-esteemed Tolstoy are discussed and quoted, liberally, along the way. On a certain blindness in human beings, the human tendency to overvalue one’s own purviews and values while misperceiving, often unceremoniously, all the rest. The likely bipolar genius was passionate in his lifelong desire to move humankind forward in this respect.

It is, however, James’s companion piece, “What Makes a Life Significant,” that has been, especially, on my mind. Here James articulates, eloquently and graphically, his pervasive attunement to the grit and substance of real life over and above image, pretense, abstraction—a certain slightness of hands and lightness of being that characterizes the shared and somewhat prettified world of the bourgeoisie and professional scenes with their touch, or perhaps more, of the rotely over-cultivated and insincere. As always, James has his sights set on what is possible in the way of realization of our own flesh-and-blood lives:

“The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing—the marriage, namely of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains. —And whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place.”

Some unhabitual ideal, and the marriage of this with fidelity, courage, endurance and, not least of all, one’s unique suffering and circumstance. How redolent of turbulence, reach and possibility! Always in James this implicit concern with matters of character and the rarified instance of self-becoming. The possibility that consciousness and the subsequent development of character, as Eugene Taylor, tempestuous and brilliant historian of the third force, once put it, might be guided into “something higher, purer, better.”

Inimitably, James describes in his essay a “happy week” spent at the “famous Assembly Grounds on the border of Chautauqua Lake” nestled idyllically in the southwestern corner of New York State, a sort of 19th century arts and education center and retreat for the purposes of ecumenical communion and study, and the overall restoration and healing of the soul:

“The moment one treads that sacred enclosure, one feels one’s self in an atmosphere of success. Sobriety and industry, intelligence and goodness, orderliness and ideality, prosperity and cheerfulness, pervade the air. It is a serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale. Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out in the forest and drained . . . equipped with means for satisfying all the necessary lower and most of the superfluous higher wants of man. You have a first-class college in full blast. You have magnificent music—a chorus of 700 voices, with possibly the most perfect open-air auditorium in the world. You have every sort of athletic exercise from sailing, rowing, swimming, bicycling, to the ball-field and the more artificial doings which the gymnasium affords. You have kindergartens and model secondary schools. You have general religious services and special club-houses for the several sects. You have perpetually running soda-water fountains, and daily popular lectures by distinguished men. You have the best of company, and yet no effort. You have no zymotic diseases, no poverty, no drunkenness, no crime, no police. You have culture, you have kindness, . . . you have equality, you have the best fruits of what mankind has fought and bled and striven for under the name of civilization for centuries. You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and no dark corners.
I went in curiosity for a day. I stayed for a week, held spellbound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle-class paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear.”

Not surprisingly, James finds himself exasperated at last with the whole ordeal:

“And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things. —I cannot abide with them. Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings. There are the heights and depths, the precipices and the steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite; and there is more hope and help a thousand times than in this dead level and quintessence of every mediocrity.”

It is safe to say, I think, that James would have been no more favorably inclined toward Esalen and a thousand and one other venues the spirit of the third force in psychology has engendered over the years aimed at the simultaneous soothing and illumination of the composite mind and body.

One of the most striking things about Rollo May was his sheer viscerality, a viscerality quite at odds with throngs of effete and humanist-leaning theorists and personalities I have met and known over many years. His oftentimes frail physical constitution notwithstanding, there was a toughness to him that made him appear far more vital, indeed virile, than scores of much younger students, colleagues, and friends. Like James, he was a lover of the outdoors and, also like James, maintained a much-loved summer home in the Lakes Region of upstate New Hampshire. There he would retreat from the world and commune with nature, canoeing strenuously, just as James had once avidly hiked the trails. What made life significant for each man included, among so many other things, a return to the earth and the connections therein with “real life” and commoner pastimes and persons. In this time of ever-advancing technologies and various matrices of consciousness, world and media, it would be a good thing to bear in mind, alongside all our talk of the “miracle of mindfulness” and “power of presence,” the sheer viscerality and down-to-earth genuineness of these, our most surpassing exemplars.

(Note: This brief essay is my latest Humanitas column for the Society of Humanistic Psychology, which can also be found at http://www.apadivisions.org/division-32/publications/newsletters/humanistic/2015/10/viscerality.aspx)

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