On living with ambiguity

Those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will recall that its end letter comes down to either a P or a J, denoting perception vs judgment modalities.  P types can tolerate, if not thrive on, open-ended movies.  Conversely, J’s like their movies to end with all the pieces in place.  As essentially an everyday existentialist, I’ve always found bonafide certainty elusive.  Thus, I generally come out in the wash as a P, with speculation often more fun for its U-Turn potential than the dead end of the J alternative.

But hold your horses. This doesn’t mean I’m closed to fixed verities and the closure they provide.  Who wants to cast his fate with an ambiguous lover, or speculate about whether he’ll have his job next month or, omigod, is it cancer?  Like the next guy, I want the bad guys rounded-up and justice meted out.  What a wonderful world it’d be if we could truly accept things as they appear, knowing nobody practices deceit, a world with no need for lawyers to protect us from the fraudulent.  No need for the clergy either to put right God’s way of doing things.  And so with psychiatrists, since there’d be nothing to be anxious about in a world absent of unknowns.  But as Voltaire’s Candide discovered the hard way, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.

I wouldn’t even be writing this entry if it hadn’t been for coming, serendipity fashion, upon Emily Dickinson’s powerful poem, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” with its blunt rendering of our stumbling angst in a cosmos devoid of moon and stars to light our journey through the metaphysical night, reminding me again of ambiguity’s pervasiveness and our struggles to find our way:

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—
A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—
And so of larger—Darkness—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—
The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—
Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Here Dickinson fashions the poem’s edifice by way of analogy from everyday life of our initial difficulty seeing things when suddenly plunged into darkness until our vision adjusts and we find our way, or think we do (“And life seems almost straight”).  The equivocation comes in the persona’s almost, which we mustn’t miss in Dickinson’s typical closet subtlety, perhaps mirroring the metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert she read avidly.

When the narrator tells “Of something in the sight/Adjusts itself to Midnight,” we come to the bottom line of how we manage our journey through the psyche’s dark night (“Those Evenings of the Brain”), perhaps through religious faith, a mainstream fixture for many in the Calvinist Amherst of her time.

My point, and I think Dickinson’s as well, is that in a cosmos absent of Divine revelation and explicit meaning, our need for closure–to abolish life’s curves and set its steps straight, exerts itself in human constructs, epistemologically, whether done through provisos of faith or artist metaphor.

It isn’t just nature that abhors a vacuum.  We despise it too.  In the end, Jung is wrong, for we are all J’s at heart!  Life is very often a search for meaning and, if tenuous in its ambiguity, compels us to define it, however vulnerable its artifice.


Of Emily Dickinson and Spring Blooms

Foxgloves in the Homestead garden
Foxgloves in the Homestead garden

The opening and the Close Of Being, are alike
Or differ, if they do,
As Bloom upon a Stalk–(1089)

I’ve always liked Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  She has this pithy way of putting things in a few, well-chosen words; a prism mind that turns things over for a thorough look; a quiet defiance that goes its own way with surprisingly modern skepticism;  a willingness to break free from fettering meter; best, a probing of the human heart in its pangs of love and grief.  I admire her honest wrestlings with God and matters of eternity.  She wanted to believe, but not by forfeiting her intelligence.

I  like how nature finds its way into virtually all the nearly 1800 poems she largely wrote in her upstairs bedroom at the Homestead, looking out on the main street of Amherst.  Every sort of plant and creature seemingly populates her poetry, including not only birds, flowers, butterflies and bees, but caterpillars and even snakes.  She kept an album of pressed plants and often slipped a flower in with her many letters.  While few Amherst villagers may have known the woman in white was a consummate poet, everyone knew she kept a great garden.

A holdout in that era’s high tide of Christian belief, she adopted her garden as her daily church, a  place of intimacy with the divinity of life:

Some keep the Sabbath going to church__
I keep it staying at home
With a Bobolink for a Chorister–
And an Orchard for a Dome–

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice–
I, just wear my Wings–
And insterad of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton–sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman–
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last–
I’m going, all along (236)

That garden and its seedlings had disappeared by 1915, when the Homestead’s attached conservatory, her father’s gift, was also dismantled.  Fortunately, beginning with 2005, that garden has been lovingly restored, based on diligent research, to its likely layout and, along with the Homestead, is now owned by Amherst College.

I bring up the subject of gardens because gardening is something I’m fond of as well. Every spring I re-thumb my garden magazines and books, looking for new ways to retool bloom and beauty.  This year, I thought of Emily Dickinson and my several visits to the Homestead.  Since it’s rare I can get back to Amherst in my birth state of Massachusetts, why not the next best thing and find room for a Dickinson look-a-like in my backyard, a space swimming in the flowers that Emily loved like violets and arbutus, daffodils, tulips and crocuses, daisies and roses.

Flowers, “Nature’s sentinels” (912), launched meditative moods in Dickinson, who drew upon metaphysical poets like Herbert and Vaughan for nuances of the Infinite.

For her, nature’s seasonal rounds resonated life’s own temporal rhythms with its undulations of joy and sadness; the immediacy of nowness and the anguish of letting go; the fact of mortality, and yet hints of something more.  That works for me as well. –rj

Finding serenity

I mentioned in a recent post how I’ve been reading Natame Soseki’s The Gate. I’m nearing the end now and just came upon the protagonist, Sosuke, ruminating that “he must find a way to attain serenity in life, given his many troubles and high anxiety.”

Serenity, I had almost forgotten this word I used to bounce around in my thoughts like a rubber ball.  I think it a beautiful word, right up there with love, compassion, empathy, and the like.

But what is it really?

I’m not a religious person, but one of the best definitions comes from the Bible which speaks of “the peace that passes understanding.”

Similarly, theologian Richard Niebuhr said it exceptionally well in a prayer he devised that later became popular and is sometimes erroneously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

Its beginning goes like this:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Alcoholics Anonymous has liked it so much that they recite it at the opening of their Twelve Step sessions.

Danger lurks, however, when we conflate serenity with passivity.  As the news media confirm daily, we live in a world of virtually palpable wrongdoing and robust evil, sometimes beyond words.   All good people must wage the fight, since indifference or passivity surely contributes to their dominion.

Serenity comes from accepting we may not realize our most ardent desires, even those bathed in love and compassion for those who suffer.  Paradoxically,  accepting our often ineffectuality makes room for serenity’s defining characteristic, transcendence.  I like how Bishop Desmond Tutu put it at a time of failing health:

I don’t think I’ve ever felt that same kind of peace, the kind of serenity that I felt after acknowledging that maybe I was going to die of this TB.

The way of serenity isn’t any sudden showering of the gods, for it necessitates self-emptying, or the surrendering of Ego that fosters our suffering with its myriad desires and its denial of our mortality.  Paradoxically, when we do so, it promotes our healing, or as Victor Frankyl expessed it, “The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more he actualizes himself.”

The good news is that we can cultivate serenity by pursuing several avenues that unlock bad habits, replacing them with alternatives promoting our well-being.  Here are some that help me:

Cognitive:  Change the way you respond to things that happen to you.  Do you act or react?  Why let someone’s curt remark destroy your day?  Are there positive alternatives to the negative way you’re interpreting things?  Negative thoughts produce emotional distress.  Pluck them by the root.

Music:  Shakespeare once famously said, “Music  hath charms to soothe a savage  breast.”  Avoid the frenetic.  Indulge the soothing.  Music reduces stress levels by 61%.

Exercise:   Physical activity relieves stress, besides being good for your health, giving you less to worry about.  You may want to add restorative yoga or Tai Chi, which have proven their worth over several millennia and are endorsesd by today’s medical community.

Interests:  Find something you like to do such as gardening, hiking, volunteering.

Friends:  Cultivate relationships with positive people.  Establish a support network.

Humor:   Laughter is its own medicine.  Research indicates it can promote blood flow, boost the immune system, and promote sound sleep.

Reading:  There are many fine reads out there written by experts on reducing stress.  Reading reduces stress by 68% according to cognitive neuropsychologist, Dr. David Lewis.  Reading works because it takes us out of ourselves which, of course, fosters serenity.

Eating:  Certain foods like blueberries, almonds, whole grains, and veggies can improve your mood and reduce stress.  You might like to peruse Elizabeth Somer’s thorough study, Food and Mood.

Organizing:  For some of us, including myself, neatness affords me a sense of being on top of things, and is thus its own tranquilizer.

Sleep:  Establish a regular schedule and keep to it.  Avoid stressful activities or exercise three hours before bedtime; same for intense mental activity.

Nature:  It isn’t accidental that nature inspires a lot of poetry or that many people opt for remote vacations away from our noisy world.  Nature enhances sensory awareness, and with it, provides relief from daily stress.  It’s as close as keeping a garden, taking a walk, and cutting the grass.  You can enhance your experience by learning the names of common trees, flowers and birds.  For me, it’s become synonymous with sanctuary.

Meditation:  I like this one best for its quick returns, especially mindfulness meditation.  (See my essay in Recent Posts, “Mindfuness and the recovery….”).  Breathing and focusing can produce immediate relief and the ability to let go of negative thoughts.  Combined with yoga or Tai Chi, you’ve a double whammy against anxiety.

In all honesty, I’ve not gotten there yet, but I’m trying, remembering that the longest journey begins with the first step.  Serenity comes down to doing what I can, subtracting the difference.

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