When I was in seminary during a year long internship in Milton, Ontario, I’d slip over to the Acorn Cafe for an egg salad sandwich. On one occasion I was reading a poem, one of the lines of which was “The meaning of life is the tear of joy shed at the sight of a well-cooked omelette.” It triggered a strange experience. I felt as though I was lifted up out of my chair, taken out the door of the cafe, and carried down Main Street and out of town. Everything was moving in slow motion. Everything and everybody was luminous in this altered state of consciousness. I ended up on the edge of a wheat field watching the sun set over a field of wheat and praying that whatever the hell had happened to me would never go away. It did, of course.
Even then, I figured the gods/G_d/Spirit/the universe were warning me that at the tender age of 27 it was time to give up my search for meaning. Not my curiosity about life, but acting as though meaning is this hidden, abstract, and esoteric thing distinct from ordinary experience—such as the beauty of an well-cooked omelette. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn the lesson, and to some extent I continue to act as though I’m waiting for the real show to start.
When I ask myself why I suspect the answer lies within both the psyche and culture. The impact of psychological and cultural/historical wounding of our species is more profound than we tend to assume. I’ve just started to read a book by Robert Firestone called The Fantasy Bond. He describes in refreshingly clear language, free from much psychobabble, the process by which there is a lot of pretence when it comes to love in the early years of attachment. Infants and children know the difference intuitively and directly between a genuine love coming their way, and when somebody is going through the motions. The unbearable weight of this failure causes the child to generate compensatory fantasies of an ideal bond—and then to put in place structures (defences) to keep the fantasy in place to mitigate against having to experience the wound. Most threatening of all is the presence of love and liveliness in those people who are less defended. This is the tragic dimension of the wound. We are most defended against that which we most long for and which can repair the wound. My point is that this wounding creates a barrier between us and our immediate and direct experience of reality. The “search for meaning” is a displaced longing to feel life in an undefended way.
It’s not enough, however, to stop at psychological/emotional wounding of early childhood. The question needs to be asked what wounds did the mother and father themselves inherit, and their mothers and fathers? Our history is essentially one of conquering and being conquered, of being dominated and then learning the ways of the dominator. There is so much cultural and historical trauma that is inherited from generation to generation, and which we then embody/en-mind/en-soul that it’s almost impossible to experience life fully without also experiencing this full extent of this cultural and historical trauma. In the Christian tradition this historical wound was accounted for by the doctrine of “original sin”. Sadly, this became an withering indictment of the human condition for which Christian beliefs were the solution, rather than an attempt to describe a state of alienation from our true condition of being deeply blessed.
This is one of the reasons that a teacher like Stephen Jenkinson (who focuses exclusively the cultural wound) concludes that grief is a core competency in the making of human beings. Without the skill of grieving (which is the willingness to carry the whole story of humanity’s wounding) we will never know what it feels like to be fully human. In the line of the poem that triggered my own experience of unmediated joy, tears are involved, and it’s my hunch that the tears are related to all the accumulated grief at having lived so long in a state of alienation from the world along with the joy of coming home to radical experience of belonging. (And it seems important to me as well, that whatever it was that picked me up and carried me, also plopped me down in front of a wheat field. It seemed to be saying: “This land is your egg omelette”.
The condition of regaining the capacity to experience life immediately and directly he calls “indigenousity”. This is not an identity that belongs to native people alone, but is rather a skill set which includes a state of consciousness, a way of living that embodies a deep sense of belonging to the land, a way of proceeding in life as though we are needed, and a way of decoding language and speaking that exposes the trauma. All of these skills are organic to any human who is willing to bear the trauma of our species, and thereby participate in the redemption of the human condition. Any takers? According to Jenkinson it is our birth right to know and enact this way of being in the world, but our educational, religious, political, and economic systems are, by and large, manifestations and an entrenchment of the trauma. They are unable to participate in the redemption because each in its own way are unconsciously (or consciously) committed to the perpetuation of the world as it is. In this sense, they represent the cultural equivalent of the psychological defence structures. In the service of defending us from remembering the trauma of history, they end up preventing us from receiving the medicine we require for our healing as a society.
Of course, every once in a long while somebody comes along who is willing the bear the trauma and offer herself or himself as a redemptive presence. In the Christian tradition, we look to Jesus. But the meaning system that grew up around him (as saviour and redeemer) unfortunately presented him as doing it on our behalf, rather than an exemplar of what constitutes a willing and courageous life. Nobody can do the work for us, however. There are no free rides. It involves considerably more remembering, more suffering, more joy, more life, more love, and more grief than most of us are willing to endure. Jesus himself was indigenous soul who was willing to bear the mandate of doing his part to redeem the deep wounding and alienation of his world. As we remember deeply enough, an evolutionary grace will lead us forward into a redeemed future. Will we continue to privilege the search for meaning over a direct participation in the unraveling and reconstituting of our lives and of the world as we know them?