Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Spiritual Exercises - The Reluctant Analyst Goes on Retreat



I woke up this morning in Chicago, though you would hardly know it. I am at a retreat center and seminary that is not too far off the interstate, but it might as well be in another world. It is a large, self contained campus surrounded by woods with a beautiful lake at the center of it. It was built by the archdiocese of Chicago in the 1920s and is clearly intended to impress the world that this new country is able to create classical spaces - the buildings are laid out symmetrically around a central axis with prominent statuary, formal gardens, and a large jetty jutting out into the lake. I am on a silent retreat and am about to start engaging in the "Spiritual Exercises", a series of reflective activities that Ignatious Loyola used, first with himself, then with an ever broadening circle of colleagues and students, and especially with novitiates - men entering the Jesuit order.

Rather than going for a run this morning, I went for a walk around the lake - a three and half mile hike on a paved road going nowhere - just around the lake - so with no traffic, winding between trees. As instructed, I listened to the silence. I heard fish jumping on the lake, deer scampering away from me, and by the end of the walk I found the sound of a car passing to be an unwanted intrusion.

In my dream this morning, I was at a conference center and the conference was coming to a close. There were a number of assumptions in the dream that I took for granted, but as I write about the dream, I find that I have to explain them. For instance, at the end of the conference there was a process for thanking the people who had put on the conference. That process involved, I think, each individual, or a subgroup of individuals, articulating what they had received of value and how they would take it away and, perhaps, integrate it into their lives. I dreamt that I "improved" the thank-yous for the staff at the conference. I did this by increasing the number of participants and also changing the focus of some of the content of the thank-yous. I was pleased that I had been able to contribute, but also vaguely anxious about whether what I was doing would be pleasing to the facilitators.

I think the dream nicely collapsed the ending of the Nicaragua trip (a trip I just returned from a week ago and that I posted a summary about in the link), where thank-yous were a consistent ritual and where my admiration for the leader of the trip probably included some envy, expressed in the dream as competition, my competition with the President of my University around the issues of self-determination - or shared governance, in our lingo - in the academy, anticipated competition with the woman who will be my spiritual director here - will she be able to provide what I need - or can I do it better - will I have to do it better, sort of the way I did with my father - providing some of the care for him that he had not provided for me as a means of receiving back from him what I would have wanted to have gotten in the first place. I think all of these things may have been condensed in the dream.

So, in the wake of the dream, I read the beginning of Genesis. This story, one of my all time favorites, seems to me to be about the recalcitrance of creation - it is not what God would want of it from the first day (he divided day from night [black and white], there was evening and morning, the first day [shades of gray], and, as creation progresses, this becomes ever more the case. Though the earth brings forth plants when he asks it to (or in the Hebrew, grasses grasses), when he asks it to bring forth animals, he has to create them himself. And then there are human beings. In both stories, the two that get mashed together after the story of the creation of the world, human beings are the most problematic part of creation. So, if God couldn't make a world that was simple and predictable and did as he and she wanted it to, how can I expect members of that creation, whether a guide, a leader, or my own self, to be all that I would have them be?

My conversation with the spiritual director picked up on this theme and helped me appreciate something that came to life in a supervision session yesterday morning before I left home. I am comfortable in positions of authority when I am facilitating change on the part of others - actually helping them to tap into aspects of themselves that will lead to development - my spiritual director calls this spiritual development. I am less comfortable wielding my authority when another needs me to change something inside of them - the spiritual director was talking about this as addressing a state of pathology within the other as opposed to a readiness to develop. I think the analytic literature makes the distinction between deficits and developmental issues here, and I think I have experienced this before as the distinction between neurosis and character pathology. In any case, the issue is that I would prefer to be functioning as a facilitator, but some of my patients, colleagues, students, and supervisors need me, at times, to be functioning as an authority figure - exerting my efforts to exact change rather than to help them do that on their own. I think that I am inhibited in engaging in this, both because of my history of being a bully - something I am uncomfortable with and aware of how easy it is to slip into - but also because I bridle so strongly when someone (oh, we could take my president, for instance, though Daniel Noriega would work as well) does this to me or to others.

This dilemma: should I function as a facilitator or as a punitive authority and when should I do which, has been addressed by one of the themes that has permeated the rest of the day: the theme of opening one's self up to the love of God. This has always been an idea that I have had considerable trouble with. The speakers here have distinguished between a God who begins from a starting point of disaffection versus one who begins from affection. The disaffected God is one who judges, who identifies and corrects violence. This is the God of instrumental authority that I am inhibited about being as analyst, colleague, employee, etc. This God is a conditional God who loves that which is lovable, that which is good, and shuns or works to change, instrumentally, that which he and she judges to be bad.

The God of affection loves the whole world - the good, the bad, and the ugly. To greet this kind of a God from a position of being toxic is possible - something that is not possible with a disaffected God. If I am toxic, if I am bad, I must cleanse myself to come face to face with God - but in my fallen condition this is impossible, so I am forever hiding myself from God. With the God of affection, my toxicity is a place to begin - though it requires a trust that the love of the other is truly unconditional - something that, it seems to me, is truly other worldly. In this world, we are loved so frequently for what we do - and shunned for what we have failed to do or done badly - that it is hard to imagine - it is hard to play like a child in the arms or under the care of his mother or father - feeling loved simply because I am alive.

When I was about six years old my grandfather died. I did not know him very well - he had been sick and was being cared for by my grandmother for all of my life. I knew him through my mother's eyes and from my brief interactions with him. He had a bed full of stuffed animals, including a little mechanical monkey that played the cymbals when you wound him up. He was very proper - through my mother's eyes I knew him as an eagle scout and troop master and someone who was quite sober and upright. So, when he died, I carried him with me as a presence for years - well into my teens. I just assumed that he had access, not only to my actions, but also to my thoughts - good, bad, and in between. Because he was on the inside, though, I assumed that he also had access to the context for those thoughts - something the Jesuits have been emphasizing today - that he knew and therefore could understand my motivations - for, on some level, how could - why would - I do anything bad? I think this is the presence that the Jesuits are pointing me towards.

As an administrator, responsible for actions, needing to make decisions about intervening in people's lives in ways that will determine what courses of action are open to them, how do I reconcile these two modes of functioning? How do I work for justice, which requires action, including punitive action, while recognizing context? As I write the question it does not appear to be as difficult as I might have imagined. One idea is the experience that a Jesuit reports in a book that my spiritual director recommended to me today: he tells the story of peasants living in India, though it could just as easily have been Nicaragua, who, unlike me - except perhaps when I was preparing for that trip - don't know that they will be alive tomorrow. This very real, constant lived experience allows them to exist with a great deal of freedom in the present moment. They can feel anger, sorrow, and loss, but also great joy - based on a constant awareness that this moment is a gift, not a right. Which, if I could achieve it, might contribute to a lightness of functioning and acceptance, on my part, of the recalcitrance of the world to my efforts to set it right - that is, that to function as the God of disaffection is impossible. I cannot legislate goodness. I can work for it, but I cannot assure it.

One of the many difficulties in translating this into my life is that I don't have access, as my grandfather presumably did, to the internal functioning of the others in my life. Even in analysis, as close as I can come to that, the functioning of the other is always partly mysterious - to me, but also to he or she him or her self. And we must live with that. The fallen condition - the ability to delude others - includes the ability to delude ourselves. I, and the person with whom I am interacting, necessarily don't have access to the entire context that is determining the actions in which we are engaging.

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