The Varieties of Adult Experience

January 24, 2010

Just the other day I had a conversation with a colleague/friend who has decided to take a leave of absence from his graduate studies.  With several “incomplete”s on his transcript and many outstanding papers still due, this very intelligent and talented student has struggled to muster the sense of realism necessary to succeed in this type of work: don’t make your studies too personal or think what you produce needs to be perfect – just get it done and move on.  But he hasn’t been able to accept this necessary state of imperfection.  This friend explained to me that he simply does not want to accept the responsibilities that he associates with “adulthood”.  On the face of it, one could argue that this just yet another example of the retarded and often incomplete maturation of today’s American male (see most popular comedies today and the market to which they speak).  Men “settle down” later, if at all, and pursue an American dream that makes less room for creating their own nuclear families.  The families that are created are shrinking in size.  Maybe there’s nothing interesting or particularly sympathetic about my friend – he just needs to “grow up.”

I’ll reserve judgment on that front in order to make a different point.  What’s interesting about my friend, I would like to argue, is that there is a strong correlation between his decisions and his religious predilections.  This young man is an advocate for and seeker of mystical experience.  He is what we might call a “spiritual seeker.”  He meditates and seeks communion with the Godhead.  He is drawn to the foundational texts of Hasidism, the revivalist movement of East European Jews that emerged in the 18th century and as a thoroughgoing postmodern (and spritual American) his religious practice is syncretist and experimental: Bhuddist meditation, selective appropriation of Jewish law, readings in feminist and gender-sensitive theology.  He wants to live spontaneously, ever open to an expansive existence and never to be stifled by workaday matters.

In her 1911 work Mysticism Evelyn Underhill argued that the fourth stage of the mystic’s experience was something called “the dark night of the soul”.  After the ecstatic heights of the mystical union with the Divine the individual returns to a depressed state wherein feelings of isolation and despair are not uncommon.  In comparison to the possible heights of revelatory experience, returning to the mundane seems by comparison a lame, if not downright wicked way of going about life.  The “real” mode of experience is the religious one and the physical, mediated world of real life is nothing more than a veil of phenomena obscuring the beauty behind it.

My friend has failed to readjust after his re-entrance.  Our world is one of imperfection, where duty and need trump the ideal of perfection.  Our experience is one of tragedy.  Values such as equality and liberty can compete in our political order but no human ordering of power brings complete redemption.  Despite our best humanistic instincts and intentions, evil is inherent in the structure of life.  No seminar paper, no matter how hard you work on it will be perfect.

Mind you, tragedy is no nihilism.  There is a great deal of wisdom and even hope when we recognize that our best laid schemes are no more than that.  But the wisdom of tragedy is an inherently adult wisdom.  Society needs its mystics, its visionaries, its outliers and outcasts.  But it mostly needs those who are willing to curb their own autonomy and embrace life as it is.

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