No Finished Facts

williamjames_med

  I have sometimes felt compelled to say to someone who feels her personal world is collapsing: 'What's happening in your life now is not a finished fact.  It is not the end of your story, however bleak and hopeless it may seem to you now.'   

 One of the most painful experiences of my life was when a trusted friend and mentor said to me, in so many words, 'It's over for you.' He spoke with such a sense of finality about how all doors were closed for me. I felt he’d given up on me. The pain of it was almost unbearable. 

 As it turned out, he was dead wrong about my prospects, for unbeknownst to me at the time, I was just then on the edge of possibilities I could never have imagined! A whole new world was about to open up. In fact, as I came to realize, it took the closing of the small world I’d been living in, to thrust me forth into a much larger world!

 I hope never to discourage anyone by concluding: 'What's happening to you is a finished fact. It's over for you. No soup for you! It's hopeless. It's final. You cannot do anything about it. All doors are closed.'

 For the fact is that a door remains open somewhere. The task is to find it! I want therefore never to live with that restricting way of thinking that espouses some kind of grim, deterministic, fatalistic door-closing philosophy. I want not to be stuck in that way of thinking that William James characterized as "the iron block universe” perspective.

 James had seen this negative frame of mind in his Calvinistic father and in the prevailing Hegelian philosophy of his time with its talk of the Absolute exclusively working itself out in history.   

 The perspective of William James was far more open-ended than that. His was a philosophy of infinite possibilities in contrast to the world view that reality is some kind of static whole, the view that this universe has been absolutely appointed and decreed and that therefore the future has "no ambigious possibilities hidden in its womb."  

 William James regarded this philosophy as a view that shackled human beings and he railed against all his life. It's a point of view that has been expressed in this way that, 'the whole is in each and every part, and welds it with the rest into an absolute unity, an iron block, in which there can be no equivocation or shadow of turning.' Well, I sigh to hear of this bleakness and cast it off before it chains me up!

 This had been the view of Josiah Royce, the famous philosopher of monism who had been James' associate at Harvard in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Fortunately, however, over time, "Royce was forced to abandon the doctrine of the absolute Mind because he finally accepted the judgment of his critics that he could not account for the experience of the individual on either epistemological or metaphysical grounds." (John J. McDermott, Spires of Influence: The Importance of Emerson for Classical American Philosophy, in Estimating Emerson, An Anthology of Criticism from Carlyle to Cavel, p.589) 

 This was a tremendous breakthrough in Royce's understanding - that the individual matters, that the individual counts, that he exists as a tangible and concrete reality and can exercise his free will, in particular, to choose one thought instead of another. The insight here is that it is not just God or the Absolute working itself out in the universe, but that you and I are distinct beings with distinct powers and possibilities.

 A Christian fundamentalist of the deterministic kind may say to you: 'Oh, it's all God's plan. God is 'saving you without you.' He has decreed it all. It's going just as He planned. It's all perfect. Therefore stop your questioning.'  

 Equally wacky and contrary to common sense, is the new age fundamentalist who says: 'Well, it's all Shiva, which implies, if not said directly, that your particularity, your individuality, is an illusion you've got to get over.   

 Daniel D. Robinson calls this way of thinking, which encloses, encircles and confines human beings, the "through and through" view of the universe. He says about it: "The through and through philosophy seems too buttoned-up and white-chokered and clean-shaven a thing to speak for the vast slow-breathing unconscious Kosmos with its dread abysses and its unknown tides." (The Radical William James, Lecture 46, in The Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Ed., p. 246)  

 The limitation of the ’through and through' view is that it tries to compress reality into grandiose theories and explanations. William James stomped the life out of this enclosing philosophy by stating that "no so-called philosophy of religion can begin to be an adequate translation of what goes on in the single private person." Why? Because, let it be said strongly! - there is so much more happening within you and me than can be encapsulated by some theory of the Absolute, of God, or Shiva! 

 For myself, I will not accept any view that diminishes who we are as persons of great dignity and of infinite value, beings who are made in the image and likeness of God. I trust that my approach will ever be that there is always some possibility. There is an open door, perhaps a secret passageway, somewhere, somehow. It's just that it hasn’t been found yet. Perhaps tomorrow the sun will shine.

 With this in mind, do not insensitively tell me that what I'm going through is merely God's plan or Shiva's lesson plan and that my life experience, my common sense and choices don't really count for anything.

 You, whomever you are, full of your theories about God, Shiva or the Absolute, do not know. Especially if you think you know, does it indicate that you surely do not! 

 There is always in this life something dynamic going on, an ongoing process.  There is an inter-play and inter-penetration of forces between ourselves and That or God or the universe, a relationship that is congenial, even if mysterious, incomprehensible and unable to be pinned down.

 And so, since everything is not pre-determined and controlled, but rather open-ended and more like a flowing reality than a rigidly dispensed or decreed reality, the truth is that however desperate one's predicament, there remains the possibility of possibility! 

 There are ever surprising twists and turns. To cite the ever hopeful and enlightened William James again: "The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and understandable world.” His theme is that you and I are not finished facts but the bearers of infinite possibilities! Others dimensions exist beyond this one. (W. James, cited by John Macquarrie in 20th Century Religious Thought p. 178)  

 The possible is still possible even if what you're going through is as difficult to bear as the darkness and gloom that Professor John J. McDermott experienced as a desperate alcoholic. 

 He describes the pain of alcoholics in this way: "If you begin an AA meeting with fifteen recovering alcoholics and say, 'Let us discuss loneliness,' invariably you will witness an outpouring of admission that loneliness was unbearable."  

 He then describes the loneliness of the alcoholic in this way: "Loneliness is disconnection. I reach but I do not touch. The Logos speaks but I do not hear.  The world of experience turns shabby and I, myself, become shabby." 

 For the alcoholic, says McDermott, "contrary to Gerard Manley Hopkins in God's Grandeur there is no freshness, no deep, nowhere and no how. My world is stripped of its countours, edges, rivulets, bypasses, signings, and above all, horizons. I am locked up inside my sick soul, my addiction and I experience utter hopelessness." (John J. McDermott, A Jamesian Personscape)  

 And yet this was not to be the end of the story and the final word on McDermott’s life experience. A plunge into the writings of William James was about to make a huge difference.

 William James himself, a source of inspiration for McDermott, had at one time plunged into a darkness from which he thought he might never emerge. Among the things that took him into the darkness was the image he had contemplated of the staring blank eyes of a catatonic patient in a lunatic asylum. 

 James had thought upon seeing him: "There but for the grace of God go I. If the hour should strike for me as it struck for him, nothing could save me from his fate."  

 He pondered the image of those staring blank eyes until it paralyzed him. He went into a state of profound gloom. For weeks afterwards, he woke every morning with a sinking feeling in his stomach." (Colin Wilson, citing William James in The Books In My Life, p. 201)  

 James, however, eventually emerged from the darkness when he read the French philosopher, Charles Renouvier, who had commented that 'we know we possess free will because we can think one thing rather than another.’ His message was that we remain free in spite of everything.

 For McDermott, following James, the way out of despair was to understand that any sense of separateness or disconnection is part of an ongoing transition or process. My experience is not some final state! 'My loneliness, however stark and searing, is continuous with the flow of all possible experiencing. It is therefore still open to messages, especially to those on what he calls the "fringe of the speaking stream."

 Messages can still be received and thus, as I understand McDermot to be saying, we should never categorize and put a label on what any of us might be going through!  As McDermot says about himself: "I may be a sick soul, but I'm a soul in process. My condition is not a finished fact!"

 And as James put it: "Our fields of experience have no more definite boundaries than have our fields of view. Both are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops and that continuously supersedes them as life proceeds." There is therefore always a more that exists on the fringe of one's experience. Be open to that. Listen for that. Be ready to follow it.  

 There is always a possible possibility! Which is brought out dramatically in Alan Paton's Cry of the Beloved Country when a black priest's son is responsible for murder. He kills a highly respected and good, white man, who had been no enemy of the blacks but someone who had had a great heart for their suffering.

 The father of the murderer, this black priest, was beside himself and could not imagine any way out of sorrow over what his son had done. In agony he said:  "There was a good white man, a good man devoted to his wife and children. And worst of all-devoted to our people. And this wife, these children, they are bereaved because of my son. I cannot suppose it to be less than the greatest evil I have known." (Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country, p. 115 of 251, Nook Book)

 We then read of the intervention in this man's life by a kindly black priest. And  I'd like you to notice that this wise priest does not share any maxims, formulas or religious cliches. Instead he says, in so many words, that 'no matter how great your darkness, you are still free.' There are still things you can do. 

 You can, the kindly, empowering priest says: "Pray and rest. Even if it is only words that you pray, and even if your resting is only a lying on a bed. And do not pray for yourself, and do not pray to understand the ways of God. For they are secret." That is, you don't have to pray kneeling or standing. Your style or posture doesn't matter and you don't have to figure any of this out!

 The priest continues: "Who knows what life is, for life is a secret. And why you go on, when it would seem better to die, that is a secret."  

"Do not think about these things now, there will be other times."

"Pray for Gertrude, and for her child, and for the girl that is to be your son's wife, and for the child that will be your grandchild. Pray for your wife and all." 

"Pray for the woman and the children that are bereaved. Pray for the soul of him who was killed. Pray for us as the Mission House, and for those who try to rebuild in a place of destruction."

"Pray for your own rebuilding. Pray for all white people, those who do justice and those who would do justice if they were not afraid. And do not fear to pray for your son and for his amendment." So, so, encouraging!

 I pray that it may be your good fortune, my reader, if you are suffering, that you know someone who could be the kind of encouraging presence for you that the priest was. My prayer this day is that you will find someone who will come along side of you as an encouraging and hopeful presence.  

 I say again - your present condition is not a finished fact. You are a person for whom there are enormous possibilities, even if these cannot presently be imagined.  

 Do something, even some small thing. And build from there. Maybe all you can do is pray. And yet in so doing, you are doing something of inestimable value.  There is always some possibility. Your story is not over.

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