Imagine that you, like Albert Einstein early in his adult life, are employed at the Swiss Patent Office and are in charge of summarising, in about 30 words each, the ideas behind the numerous projects applying for a patent, piling up on your desk every day.
One day, you’re confronted with a folder, containing several thousands of pages, and titled Christianity – A Teaching to Transform the World. You heave a sigh, you open it up. …The things one has to do for a living!
You read on, and you get progressively lost in the subtle reasoning behind the acceptability of the filioque, the distinction between God’s essence and His energies, the importance of the epiclesis in the worship of the Holy Gifts and the dangers of engaging in artolatry. By the time you’ve reached the theological niceties of the transubstination, aka metousiosis, and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception exempting the Mother of God from the Original Sin of humanity, you might feel the urge to start kicking and screaming.
Still, you have a job to do, and a synopsis to write. You scratch yourself between the ears, so as to get the cerebral fluids moving, and you come up with, say, the following:
A personality-improvement teaching based on active community life and self-reflection, underpinned by allegorical meta-narrative.
Reducing vast ideas to just a few words is a two-edged sword that can either hone our skill of telling what’s important from what isn’t, which it supposedly did for Einstein, or blunt our eye for detail, thereby limiting our ability of enjoyment.
Taking cue from the book presented here, please identify the literary works described below:
- A young mother took arsenic and died in a French provincial town after domestic problems.
- A young mother threw herself under a train and died in Russia after domestic problems.
Doesn’t sound very compelling, does it? 🙂
According to Marcel Proust, the book linked above tells us, the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. Hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art, and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap, as in Pascal’s Pensees.
In line with this, I’d like to tell you of a modern, short and unpretentious book that, quite counterintuitively, has offered me the most clear synthesis of Christianity’s message of self-improvement, stripped bare of all collateral philosophical polemics.
It is called The War of Art, by U.S. author Steven Pressfield, and it basically says that the force, opposite to the creative impulse and preventing humans from acting on their free will, thus achieving goals that require work and delayed gratification while overcoming hardship, is called Resistance.
Resistance is an impersonal and universal force of entropy that is self-generated and self-perpetuated. It feeds on fear and makes sure no work gets done, for the sake of preserving a stunting state of homeostasis. Pure physics.
In no particular order, Resistance can be elicited by any of the following: the pursuit of an artistic calling, the launch of an entrepreneurial venture, the following of a health regimen or a programme of spiritual advancement or education, any course of action designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction, any act of political, moral or ethical courage, and any endeavour whose aim is to help others.
Billions of people are confronted with Resistance every day, but two groups, according to Pressfield, have taken their personal mission to fight it to a higher degree – the Warrior and the Artist, who live by the same code of necessity – that of doing their work in the face of fear every day. This urge, Pressfield argues, stems from love and cultivates courage, which together lead to the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness. Talk about Christianity’s foundations of love and humility…
As a side note, recall the quote from a Carlos Gardel song I have already mentioned: Guitarra, guitarra mia, por los caminos del viento, vuelan en tus armonias coraje, amor y lamento? I guess Gardel must have known a thing or two about Resistance as well.
Also, remember how Satan tempted Jesus in the desert? And how hermits start receiving people only after decades of seclusion? I think these are allegorical tales of combating Resistance. Also, many Christian saints have, in their earthly life, been harlots, criminals and harbourers of vice. The more they have rolled in the gutter, the more work they have done to fight Resistance and move on to a higher state of being. This is the meta-narrative part, telling us, I think, not that these people are irreproachable in toto, but rather that, if they have managed to defeat their demons, we should be able to do so too.
Some of the symptoms and manifestations of Resistance include procrastination; indiscriminate and compulsive sex; getting into trouble; engaging in self-dramatisation, hypochondria, victimhood, rationalisation, substance abuse and support groups; experiencing unhappiness; descending into religious fundamentalism and malicious criticism of others.
Combating Resistance on the other hand, apart from being a war fought anew every day, is no bed of roses at all, as it entails dealing with opposition from those around us, isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt and humiliation, to name but a few. Again, remember the martyrs of the faith and the allegorical meta-narrative.
Still, Steven Pressfield sees opportune to apply to combating Resistance some of the things people do on their jobs every day, based on the strength of these activities’ repetitiveness and dedication to a single goal – that of getting the job done, so that we’re paid. These are: showing up every day no matter what, dedicating focused time, being committed over the long haul, mastering the techniques, feeling that stakes are high and real, not over-identifying with our work and receiving praise or blame for it in the real world.
Attitudes that help in the process are: being patient, seeking order, demystifying the work, acting in the face of fear, accepting no excuses, being prepared, not showing off, asking for help, recognising one’s limitations, not taking success or failure personally, and enduring adversity and injustice. According to Pressfield, the act of courage we perform by combating Resistance, unleashes forces coming from within us, which help and sustain us.
Now take any Christian prayer you can think of, and analyse what it is typically calling for – it’ support for achieving or maintaining any combination of the following: patience, a clear mind, a clean heart, strong will and fair judgment. The act of praying itself is conducive to reducing the feeling of self-importance and overconfidence, which, as Pressfield rightly notes too, prevent us from doing our work.
I’d like to point out that my drawing parallels here is no attempt at proselytism or religious apologetics of any kind, but rather an effort to describe my quest for understanding where religion’s positive message end and the power games begin. I have already mentioned that I believe that religion, meaning a path for reconnecting us to our deeper selves, is very much alive and kicking, and acting in ways we often fail to realise.
For goodbye, please accept a sonnet by Charles Baudelaire, who may come across as a misanthrope, but whose creative genius has not failed to place its finger on the “dark Enemy that gnaws our hearts,” if you care for a translation of the post title. I’ve never encountered a better description of Resistance in verse.
When I was young, I lived a constant storm,
Though now and then the brilliant sun shot through,
So in my garden few red fruits were born,
The rain and thunder had so much to do.
Now are the autumn days of thought at hand,
And I must use the rake and spade to groom,
Rebuild and cultivate the washed-out land
The water had eroded deep as tombs.
And who knows if the flowers in my mind,
In this poor sand, swept like a beach, will find,
The food of soul to gain a healthy start?
I cry! I cry! Life feeds the seasons’ maw
And that dark Enemy that gnaws our hearts
Battens on blood that drips into his jaws!
(translation by James McGowan)
Voila que j’ai touche l’automne des idees,