Thursday, January 12, 2012

Katabasis

Robert Bly.  Iron John: A Book about Men.  Originally published by Addison-Wesley, 1990.  ISBN: 0306813769.

Julien Smith.  The Flinch.  Domino Project, 2011.  ASIN: B0062Q7S3S.

For many years, I lived with a gnawing fear in the pit of my stomach.  In a very visceral way, I just knew that there were bad things abroad in the world.  I knew that these bad things were coming for me, and that I was no match for them: they were harder, stronger, bigger, and more complex than anything I was prepared to deal with.  I lived in fear of them, all the time.  The older I got, the worse the fear became.  I feared that I would get sick, that I would not be able to go to school, that I would flunk out, that I would would never get a job, that people would see me for the pathetic weakling I thought I was and reject me without a second thought.  As an adolescent, I attempted to deal with this fear in a number of ways: I retreated to books, to chores, to physical activities, and (above all) to religious exercises like prayer and confession.

My youthful attempts to escape the fear were not uniformly successful.  While I could put my mind out of fear temporarily with coping strategies (the books, the chores, the physical activities, and some religious activities), I could never really banish it.  My most excruciating experiences with it were religious: no matter how hard I prayed, I could not be permanently certain that I was worthy of God's love.  It seemed to me that no matter what I did or could do, God was always one thought away from condemning me to hell.  In retrospect, I can see that this was largely a question of puberty: I reached it, had some sexual feelings, and was convinced that the devil had taken permanent hold of me (since in spite of all I did--praying every day, studying scripture, serving in church callings, confessing to the bishop repeatedly--I could not make the sex go away).  But there were deeper insecurities here than just teenage sexuality, and my spirit was in some measure already broken before the correlated LDS gospel stomped on it for good measure.

Looking back, I think the thing that bothered young me most about life in general and sex in particular was my lack of control.  I believed that there should be a way of living that gave me control over myself.  I wanted to take action to make myself strong--physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually healthy.  I wanted to do something that would help me face the fear.  In hard work, I found the closest thing to a panacea: I could toughen my body and my mind with intelligent and diligent practice, spending time in the yard, in the gym, and in the library with thick books.  But my spiritual practice seemed to leave me worse than I was before undertaking it.  I came away from hard work exhausted but relaxed (and unafraid), while spiritual work left me more worried (and afraid).  Even when I had a good spiritual experience, I knew it was only a matter of time before something shattered my fragile feeling of spiritual calm.  Every time I went with the youth to the LDS temple, I asked myself Do I really belong here? Am I really worthy to be in the presence of the Lord? and I was always afraid that the answer would be No.  When I did feel that negative answer, I wanted to kill myself.  The shame was almost unbearable, and talking about it with God and church leaders made it worse.  Family members could sometimes talk me down, but it was brutal.  I would fantasize about suicide or castration.  I feared to share this with anyone.  I just wanted to curl up and die, ridding an otherwise beautiful world of the blot that was my miserable, wicked existence.

Robert Bly and Julien Smith write about what ultimately saved me from this psychic death trap.  As part of his work on masculine psychic development, Bly talks about katabasis, Greek for descent, as something all of us have to undergo on the road from cradle to grave (Iron John, p. 70):
Our story simply says that after wandering around a while, having no "craft," the young man at last got a job in the kitchen--which is traditionally in the basement--of a castle.  The story [of Iron John] says that after all the gold fingertips and hair [the rich life experienced by the young protagonist before], what is proper next for the man is the whirlpool, the sinking through the floor, the Drop, what the ancient Greeks call katabasis.
...
When katabasis happens, a man no longer feels like a special person.  He is not.  One day he is in college, being fed and housed--often on somebody else's money--protected by brick walls men long dead have built, and the next day he is homeless, walking the streets, looking for some way to get a meal and a bed.  People know immediately when you are falling or have fallen: doormen turn their backs, waiters sneer, no one holds the subway car door for you.  Your inner psychology changes as an old shame surfaces; one walks with head down and feels it's all inevitable.  The inner masculine self changes.  While one is still grandiose and naive, a young man lives inside, shiny-faced, expectant, hopeful, dandified, a prince.  After the Descent begins, an old man takes the place of the prince.  To one's amazement a helpless, anti-social, brittle, isolated derelict takes over.
Katabasis is what happens when there is nowhere to run from the fear.  Stuck with nowhere to go, the only thing one can do is take the low road, the road that leads straight into the jaws of hell, straight into the place one has been desperately trying to avoid.  You face your greatest fear head-on, confronting Death like a mythic hero (think of Heracles going down to the Underworld, or Jesus going to free the souls in Hell).  You let Death give you her best shot, recognizing that she might utterly destroy you with it.  And then, something miraculous happens: the fear recedes, and your capacity to act effectively increases.  Death breaks you down, smashing your illusions to pieces, and you emerge from the conflict forged into something better, something different from anything you would have imagined before.  One might call it resurrection.

Bly talks about katabasis as one stage in the life of man.  Smith treats it as a recurring phenomenon, noticing how the people who achieve moral greatness in life are invariably those who are able to go through katabasis (which he calls facing the flinch) repeatedly without backing down.  Death pushes you toward torpid entropy, insisting that you live in an increasingly narrow comfort zone--avoiding conflict of any kind until you find perfect peace and flatline.  The submissive are too afraid of Death to rebel, too timid to confront their fears head-on (breaking out of old habits, which might be smoking, drinking, working a soul-destroying job, or cultivating a psychotic fascination with one's incurable wickedness).  Smith's thesis: Improving life requires cultivating the ability to change habits; one does this by repeatedly facing the flinch and refusing to back down.  If you are afraid of something, you confront it directly, deal with it, and move on past it.  If you want to be a champion athlete, you pursue your sport of choice to the point of exhaustion, pass that point, and discover the outermost limits of your physical capacity.  If you want to stop smoking (or doing any drug), you cut your use down to nothing and discover a new life (without the drug).  It hurts, of course, but the only thing that hurts more than confronting your fears is avoiding them.
There are a million ways to avoid the flinch, a million ways to do wrong by yourself in evading it.  There are a hundred names for those people and behaviors: lazy, avoidant, cynical, arrogant, and anything in between.  All of these names convey attitudes that encourage you to avoid seeing what is right in front of you, all in a different way, and each of the people who has one of these attitudes defends it.  In contrast, there is only one way to do it right and to see the truth.  It is to look at these ways of acting in yourself or others and cross through their verbal defenses, and not to believe them at all.

Every person has his own way of being avoidant and overly confident.  It's impossible to name all the ways people do this.  But the solution is always the same: ruthless yet compassionate honesty in the face of all the lies you tell yourself.  The flinch will keep you avoidant your whole life if you let it.  You will see nothing of the magic or serendipity or incredible experiences that others have if you keep your blinders on.  For this reason, taking them off may be the single most important challenge you ever face.  There are enough viewers.  There are enough cheerleaders.  There are enough coaches and enough commentators.  What there isn't enough of are players.  Do not put this down and return to your normal life.  Fight.  Don't flinch.  Don't ever be afraid again. 
At some point, I confronted certain fears and grew past them.  In the gym, I confronted the physical pain and danger associated with active movement, and I became stronger.  In the classroom, I confronted my fear of ignorance and mental ineptitude, and I became more intelligent.  But at church, I remained stuck in my old patterns of fear.  My progress outside church came from a willingness to doubt everything.  I came into the gym and the classroom prepared to unlearn everything I thought I knew about strength and intelligence.  I was open, humble, and critical (without being mean: finding the right answer was my goal, not denigrating the wrong answer).  But religion resisted these attributes, telling me that there were things I could not question, things that I could not under any circumstances doubt.  Initially, I accepted that religion was unique, above questioning.  I avoided the flinch, swerving away from the gates of hell.  But this was a bad strategy: it was slowly killing my spirit, just as mental or physical stagnation would have killed my body.

As time went by, I became more and more conscious that I was running from something every time I went to church, and it seemed more and more that what I was running from was the best part of my character--the happy part, the part that knew how to do something besides cower in fear of the wrath of the Almighty.  The more time went by, the more I wanted to confront my fear.  I knew I needed to confront it, or it would destroy me.  Still, that confrontation was one of the hardest things I have ever done.  It required me to look deep into my soul and see what was really there.  It required me to let go of my preconceptions about life, my religious faith that everything would be OK if I just avoided the flinch.  As I turned down the road to hell, finally, it occurred to me that I had spent many years talking about something I had never really done.  I talked about trusting God.  I talked about letting go, about falling into the abyss with faith that whatever happened would be right.  I talked, but the whole time my eyes were screwed shut, and my feet were planted as far away from that abyss as they could be.  This was particularly striking when I looked back on my experience teaching church lessons to "investigators" (as LDS missionaries call potential converts): I would tell these people to let go of their ideas about life and throw themselves entirely on the mercy of an unknown God (I thought I knew him, but they knew they didn't).  I was like the skydiving instructor who coaches other people to successful jumps without ever attempting one himself.  I needed to get out and do something.  I needed some skin in life's game.  I needed things to be real, more than I needed them to be safe.  So I finally turned down the forbidden road.  I followed all the great heroes whom life has ever produced (and many more whom we will never hear from), and I took the low road to an unknown place.

When I came back from that awful place (a place of awe), I was a changed man.  Some things were better: I was no longer constantly afraid.  Some things were worse: many of my cherished dreams about the nature of reality (and the character of God) were shattered, and some of my old friends could not bear to see me without these.  Some even seemed to value these dreams more than they valued me, suggesting that it might be better that I had died or suffered anything rather than face the flinch and overcome my fear.  I understand how these people feel.  I do not think less of them for feeling, and I am truly grieved that they are grieved, but I do not think I would do things differently if I could somehow go back to where I was before the descent.  The descent destroyed some parts of me, yes, but the parts that it left make a much better person--a person less afraid of his own shadow, a person more able to make real moral decisions for himself (rather than relying blindly on others with more social capital or more guts).  I am no longer ashamed to be alive (or at least, not as ashamed as I used to be).  I do not live in permanent fear of the Almighty, or anything really.  Death will come for me again, of course, but meantime there is nothing to be gained by worrying about her.  I have discovered the courage to recognize and live by my own moral convictions.  I would not trade that for anything.  It has given me unexpected faith in my own humanity, tapping internal reservoirs of moral strength and conviction that I did not know I possessed.  These days, I really want to live, and my fears have become challenges to be met with defiance rather than a fate I must endure in submission.  I love Henley's old poem:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


Life can be truly miserable sometimes, for me and for other people (including many who suffer more than I ever have).  Sometimes, it makes no sense.  But fear is not the answer.  Fear will not save you; or, at the very least, it was not saving me.  After my descent into the underworld, I have a new message for whatever is out there commanding my fear (whether humans, gods, demons, or an impersonal, indifferent nothingness): "Bring it!"  I may not have what it takes to win (and eventually everyone loses), but you had better believe I will go down swinging.  No more cowering and cringing for me.  No more flinching.

8 comments:

  1. Impressive article.

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    1. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. Just curious, were you in college when you started accepting your katabasis?

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    1. I was in grad school, on my own and away from home. I was living in an area where people did not know me. All my old friends ("enablers") were gone. When it comes to facing the flinch, cultivating novelty does help. While too much novelty will destroy the order you need to make sense of the new (and tame it before it kills you), too little has a way of stifling you (as I learned when I tried to live without any great change).

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    2. Many Christians suggest taking the high road. Meaning, don't get even, don't be bitter, don't be resentful, etc. When you said you took the low road, did you become those things or were you referring to something else?

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    3. This is a good question. I think there is some continuity here between what I say and what these Christians say. It is not always easy to see or express, however.

      One of the best illustrations of it that I can think of at the moment is Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina. Anna and Levin share a lot of moral characteristics that are uniquely human. They are both generous. They are both passionate. They show a tendency toward idealism (and/or romanticism). In Anna's case, these attributes lead her to pursue a course that results in her losing her family with Karenin and committing suicide--a bad result, from the perspective of many readers. In Levin's, the same attributes give him a stable family with Kitty Scherbatsky.

      People are always trying to separate the Annas from the Levins, driving vice away from virtue and doing their best to convince everyone that the two are really categorically distinct. Tolstoy's presentation problematizes this separation by showing the reader vividly how Anna and Levin are the same: the same moral attributes that kill Anna make Levin more alive.

      Heraclitus has a saying that gets at the kernel of the problem here: "The road up and the road down are the same." Virtue and vice are the same. The high road and low are really the same. But we experience them differently. Those on the high road who never notice where it is low have a tendency to assume things about themselves. They think they are virtuous. They think their moral success is a sign of moral superiority (Levin does better than Anna because she is a total loser, right? A heedless sinner who never heeds the call of Jesus). Then disaster strikes, and they are on the low road all of a sudden (wondering, "how the heck did I get here? where is Jesus now that I really need him? why does everybody who used to praise my virtue now hate me?"). The truth is that they were always there, in the one road that exists for human experience, and circumstances turned against them.

      Katabasis, for me, is about recognizing that circumstances always turn against us. There is no such thing as medicine that is not also poison (the Greek word "pharmakon" means "drug" and "poison"). There is no such thing as virtue that is not also vice (and vice versa). Katabasis is about facing the reality that you cannot hide from failure (even if you get lucky and never see any until the very end of your life, but what kind of life would that be?). Katabasis is about embracing failure and learning from it, moving past the worst experiences that life can give and finding something good on the other side.

      The weak wait for katabasis to find them (praying that they can avoid it). The strong seek it out (knowing that it will find them anyway and wanting to pre-empt it--fight it their own way).

      All of us are sometimes petty, stupid, bitter, resentful, and so on. If we want to avoid being this way in a manner that ruins our lives, we must confront our pettiness, our stupidity, our bitterness, our resentment. We must stop running scared from it. We must embrace it at least enough to see what virtue lies hidden in its vice. We must face the flinch. The morally strong people are not the ones who never acted petty, stupid, bitter, resentful, etc. They are the ones who noticed their pettiness, their stupidity, their bitterness, their resentment, and turned them into magnanimity, erudition, sweetness, humility. That transformation is not an easy thing, and it is never achieved by avoidance (though of course we want to avoid behaving certain ways with certain people in certain situations). Katabasis is about learning to face yourself--honestly, openly, entirely, with the aim to understand before you seek the power to transform.

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    4. Sorry, I don't intend to make this a long discussion. But, when you mention facing the flinch and the transformation from vice to virtue, do you mean we acknowledge to ourselves our feelings of bitterness, pettiness, etc., find value or virtue hidden in them, and then act on them?

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    5. I don't mind long discussions (as you probably guessed). To me it seems a little better to say that when we face our feelings of bitterness honestly and directly, we act better. There is really no such thing as not acting on our impulses; we cannot help noticing things and acting on what we notice. Facing this reality honestly helps us transform our bitterness (etc.) into something minimally harmful and maximally helpful. The best people are those whose vices are most self-conscious and deliberate (because they notice them explicitly and keep them in line, not by denying them but by giving them minimally harmful outlets).

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