When I first started to write, in my teens and early 20’s, I was hugely influenced by an eclectic group of American writers that included vocal social critics from the earliest years of the 20th century. People like Theodore Dreiser, who wrote famously clunky prose, but whose An American Tragedy (1925) was a stinging indictment of greed in our culture. Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis depicted the soul-crushing conformity of a milieu we often imagine as small town innocence. But greater than any other influence was Henry Miller, who demonstrated the power of personal essays. His books, like The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945) shaped my view of our dominant culture.
It was natural that this kind of critique, along with that of more recent writers and essayists like Michael Ventura, should influence my blogging. But this spring something strange happened. At the start of Lent, though I do not celebrate the season in any formal way, I announced that I would “give up” negative posts for the duration. As expected, the experiment was more interesting than I expected.
I’ve already blogged about some of my findings, especially the obvious ones, like the preponderance of bad news in all varieties of media. And I knew in advance there would be less to say if I excluded negative themes. What I didn’t expect was to find myself wondering whether it mattered – it’s virtuous to write about things like climate change and income inequality – isn’t it? A very interesting question since I don’t really believe many writers and artists change social ills directly. Maybe Charles Dickens did, or Jacob Riis, with his photos of child labor, but Dreiser didn’t eliminate greed and Miller didn’t break the ruts of conformity. Writers and artists sometimes change individual hearts and minds, but how does that work? That is not a rhetorical question, but something I often wonder about. How does it work?
Perhaps it was this kind of question that moved Phil Ochs, one of the best of the 60’s protests singers, to write, “You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty / Ah, but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.” Maybe it’s what led Henry Miller, in his last years, to write books like, My Bike and Other Friends, and to focus on his watercolors.
My biggest discovery, while turning away from negative stories during Lent, concerned inner dialog rather than outer events. I’ve attended to this in a focused way in the past at various times, but not for a while. Mindfulness practice appeared on the cover of Time, so it must be gaining fad status, but that does not diminish its worth. It’s an ancient contemplative discipline that involves simply watching the contents of consciousness. Not fixing, fighting, or merging with, but simply observing what flits through awareness (here’s a good introduction to the practice).
I don’t know about anyone else, but I often find a subtle but persistent stream of critical inner narrative on self, others, and events. The narratives tend grow in the darkness yet dissolve when observed, the way shadows disappear when you turn on the light in a room. Observation eventually leads one to suspect that thoughts have no more substance than shadows, and no more inherent reality, and yet they can have profound effects. I suspect we have all had interesting synchronicities, met things in the world corresponding to our inner states. And if one subscribes at all to notions of the effect of collective thoughts, an idea given names like, “tipping point” or “hundredth monkey,” then the contents of consciousness take on a meaning beyond their effect on oneself alone.
I follow the Dalai Lama on Facebook and often note that when he is asked about topical issues like climate change, he always gives a thoughtful answer, the tone of which is invariably, “I am hopeful.” If I learned anything with this Lenten experiment, it is how hard it can be to cultivate a hopeful attitude. I also cannot imagine anything more important. Can there be a more important seed to plant than this one – “I am hopeful?”