Inspiring Uneasiness


 In Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, Marlow travels through the jungle towards an encounter with the heart of darkness and meets along the way the manager of the central station. What stood out about about him, says Marlow, was  his ability to 'inspire uneasiness.' This was his effect! An empty, colourless man, concerned only with his own success, living in that one-dimensional orbit only, he was truly the faceless bureaucrat whose speciality, the one thing he was really good at, was to make people feel uneasy!

 "That was it!", says Conrad - there wasn't anything more to him than that. You would feel apprehensive while with him. Which is to feel, if you've met the type, somewhat discomposed and ill at ease, if you let the bureaucrat's fangs of ordinariness sink into you.

 The manager is the kind of person, says Marlow, who nobody loves and nobody fears. For there before you is some kind of nonentity, a one-dimensional humanoid, who does the job he's required to do without any creative flair or soulful presence. Such a man's forte, his art - his way in the world, is to make others feel uneasy in his presence. He and those like him, have no other impact than that. You need fresh air and space - and fast - to recover from your brush with their flatness and vapidity. 

 William Deresiewicz describes someone he once worked for who possessed the exact same smile as the central station's manager, a smile like a shark's, and that same ability to make you feel uneasy, like you were doing something wrongonly she wasn't ever going to tell you what." (William Deresiewicz, Solitude and Leadership, The American Scholar, West Point lecture, October 2009)

 Deresiewicz writes as well about similarly undistinguished, garden variety, characters to be found among the so-called 'brightest and best' at Ivy League schools. Having emerged himself from these schools and then having taught for ten years at Yale, Deresiezwicz was asked to address the military academy at West Point. There he challenged the students in a lecture called Solitude and Leadership to be more than the world class hoop jumping conformists many become by selling themselves in order to get ahead. So unconscious are so many of these students, he states elsewhere, that they sell out without even having any comprehension of what it is they are selling out from.  

 He challenged the students at West Point to learn to think by the regular practice of solitude. "Thinking isn't about learning other people's ideas, or memorizing a body of information. It requires concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea of your own. "You simply cannot do that," he states, "in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your IPod, or watching something on You Tube."   

 Instead of the sturdiness of soul which is attained through solitude, many, he warns, become well trained, 'excellent sheep.' Yes, they find success but it is at the expense of becoming estranged from their deepest thoughts and feelings. In the process of failing to cultivate their inner lives, these, like the manager of the central station, end up finally not distinguishing themselves in any way other than through their soul-sapping ability to create uneasiness.  

 About the students he taught at Yale and Columbia he states that "most of them seemed "content to color within the lines that their education marked out for them. "Only a small minority," he observed, "have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey." Most have not been conscious of themselves as pilgrim souls. The few who have have "tended to feel like freaks. Places like Yale, as a student there said to him,"are not conducive to searchers."

 This then is what an Ivy league education will do for your child! It will suck the soul out of her as she learns to become a hoop jumping, soulless success. Surely worth the thirty grand or more per year!

  Of course, says Deresiewicz, "when students get to these institutions, they will hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they will spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions - specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students." (William Deresiewicz, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education) 

 "It's no wonder," says Professor Deresiewicz, "that the few students who are passionate about ideas find themselves feeling isolated and confused. He spoke with one of them "about his interest in the German Romantic idea of 'bildung', the upbuilding of the soul." But, as the student told him: "It's hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs."

 I know the type. I've met not a few along the way, mediocrities who appear to find some level of success but who are somehow never quite present when you meet them - who are 'not entirely there' somehow - (if you know what I mean?) - as if something vital and essential was lost or misplaced over the years as they maneuvered their way towards the top. 

 A friend and mentor of mine once advised me to become like one of these smooth, slimy creatures, if I wanted to get ahead as a young clergyman. I shuddered as he spoke. It took me completely off guard for I was not expecting to hear this kind of advise from someone for whom I had respect. The picture that comes to mind is that of the preacher as a salesman - the most abominable picture on earth - like the bug-eyed, goofball pictured below.


 Years have passed now and I've seen what the smooth operators have become. They have their reward and I do not envy them. I feel relieved and enjoy peace of soul that I steered clear of them and their influence. 

 Now I'd like to say that what can exist in contrast to these ever wangling creatures whose focus is to sell themselves is that rare person in whose presence you feel inspired and freed up! You feel in the presence of a truly integrated being - who has not sold out - free to be more yourself than perhaps you have ever been. Even free to be a little crazy. Free to be your best self. Free to be more than you might have dreamed of becoming. 

 What's the difference between those whose focus is on a way of success that neglects the inner life and those who practice the way of solitude? It can be explained thus. The person who gives you a queasy feeling of uneasiness is, whether conscious of it or not, covering over, blocking, or holding down an essential human thirst for higher things, for ultimate values. He has made it a habit to ignore and to be disengaged from that essential quest to discern what really matters. Instead, he has buried that thirst, that desire, and might not even know what you're talking about if you try to bring the subject up. 

 His most vital and essential longings have been covered over "with rubbish, petty worries and egotistical ambitions." (Cyprian Smith) Banished from consciousness is any 'real desire,' 'deep desire,' 'great thirst,' 'holy desire,' or 'deep yearning.' The yearning for more is buried in the deepest recesses of his mind. He's likely to mock and scoff in response to words like this. He uses an entirely different vocabulary.

 Now, if ever such a one were to remove the barriers and the clutter, a certain obscured energy would shine forth, like a flame, and leap towards heaven!" (Smith) In response to that perhaps surprising event, people would feel the shock of it and rejoice, exclaiming as they witness the new eruption of energy: 'What a glory! How can this be? I didn't think it was possible! He had always been so hidden! So locked up inside himself. You never knew where you stood around him. You always felt you were doing something wrong when he was around. He had such a stifling, inhibiting effect. Around him I had never dared to say what I really thought and felt. I never felt free to be myself.'   

 Meister Eckhart writes about a life-vivifying knowledge which can be experienced as a flowing energy as opposed to the those lower and coarser levels of knowledge that have to do with knowing facts or with the practice of analysing, theorizing or speculating. There is an experience of knowledge as a vital, life-giving energy that upholds and undergirds us at all times, enabling what Jo Campbell once referred to as a sense of "a centering, a centering, a centering," which in his case, as he testified - he felt all the time!

 And I believe Campbell, for you could tell as Joseph spoke that that essential life-giving energy was alive and moving, even surging through him, so that even as this great man was dying of cancer in his early eighties, he remained someone who was absolutely incapable of committing the unforgivable crime of boring people to death.

 Eckhart called this vital force a living fountain within. But, as he says, people throw earth upon it, as earth might be thrown over a well so that the well's water is no longer available. It is impeded and covered up.

 And yet, says Eckhart, the well water is still there - "it remains living in itself" until that day finally when 'the earth that had been thrown upon it from outside is taken away. It is then that the well will flow again.' (Cyprian Smith, The Way of Paradox, Spiritual Life As Taught by Meister Eckhart)

 What is being described is an experience of a vital and vivifying knowledge that goes so far beyond merely saying: "I believe such and such and then going away and forgetting all about it." Here is a transforming experience of knowledge that is "concentrated and intense. It pierces through all the veils which hide and penetrates to the Reality behind it all." (Smith) 

 "Guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone," said the Irish poet, Yeats, that is, from that orientation towards the lower domains of factual knowing  and theorizing. "He that sings a lasting song," said Yeats, "Thinks in a marrow-bone." Which is to say that the truest knowledge and deepest wisdom can never be something of the brain only, but must emanate from the core of the whole human being, flesh and blood, bone, marrow and sinew." Knowledge on this level is not something pale and bloodless, but rather expresses all that is most central and vital in us." (Cyprian Smith)

 It is therefore a matter of great urgency to create a daily practice of solitude, so that you and I have something vital to share from that flowing inner fountain. The alternative is end up as some kind of worldly success perhaps but not as someone who radiates spiritual understanding and wisdom.