Life and Influence

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Of modern thinkers I have to give credit, what little credit there can be given, to Joseph Campbell and Colin Wilson. It is in the reading of their works in my early twenties that I was able to orient myself to life. I found myself at twenty-one with no high school diploma and no prospects for employment dealing with my mother’s unexpected death. I did have almost four hundred dollars to my name and I spent part of that money on A Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Outsider, and Religion and the Rebel. It should be no surprise that I find myself, ten years later, attending seminary dealing with the questions raised by these texts.

What intrigued me about Campbell was the idea of a unified story connecting humanities quest to graft meaning on to life. This idea of solid passages from nascent stages of life into fully realized humanity, with an emphasis on courage, still informs the way that I approach the state of American culture. We can look to the way that we treat the marginal and distressed in our society to evaluate where we are as a culture. I see an America guided by fear, hung up on pervasive Antebellum fears surrounding race, class, and pseudo-science. Investing the “Other” with humanity is a form of courage that has been abandoned to security. We are taught that our position in society so precarious, it is only by keeping others down, physically through health management and financially, we will elevate ourselves. Campbell is often misinterpreted as a purveyor of a personal philosophy of “Do what you love,” but I have come to understand that it is only through others that we can reach our personal potential.

Bill Moyers, who worked with Campbell on his various PBS specials, is the prime example of a life devoted to others. I often wonder how much of A Hero with a Thousand Faces has uplifted Moyers’ efforts to bring honesty and compassion to American politics.

Wilson is a more baffling character to understand through his works. I recently reread his autobiographical introduction to Religion and the Rebel. I see so much of what I have become, and the questions that have guided my research, in his voyage of self-discovery. There are hints of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the question of the Outsider – an internal “Why?” connected to both meaning and existence. The Outsider essentially provided my personal reading list for the past decade as I wrestled my way through the alienating experience of undergraduate education. The discovery of Albert Camus through Wilson has been a particularly illuminating experience. Wilson’s turn towards mysticism and the occult was foreshadowed in his early work and it is this turn which doomed him to the periphery of the intellectual community. Nothing is more reviled than a believer and even skeptics, of the modern variety, draw the line at investigating the phenomenological underpinnings of society. Everything must be questioned – but in a specific pre-approved way.

Apparently Wilson died last month. His passing did not break into my shell of final exam preparation and internet dormancy. For me Wilson represents what has to be sacrificed for the big questions in the age of simplistic answers. In his work Wilson was consistently against “stages” in life; clearly believing that influence should be deep and lasting or non-existent.

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Digging

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The last week has been a whirlwind. I have met dozens of fellow seminarians, each of which seems to be more profound and capable than I am. Shuffling between orientation sessions and finding my way around Manhattan, I search for calmness in the confusion. The hustle was brought to a grinding halt with the holiday weekend and the news of Seamus Heaney’s death.

I became acquainted with the work of Heaney in 2001 due to his translation of Beowulf. Memory fails me at this moment in details, but I recall the earthy feel of the lines and the immediacy of the story. Perhaps it hit me at the right moment as a high school dropout struggling to find a direction for my life. What strikes me, looking back, are the gleeful violence of Beowulf and the pain of Grendel’s mother. She created something grotesque and evil, yet we must feel the love Grendel’s mother contains having participated in the act of creation. I find more sympathy with her rather than Beowulf – a man who collects heads as trophies and whose only merit is strength.

“Digging” is perhaps Heaney’s best known work in America – much anthologized and studied. In this poem Heaney’s pen and talent become his tool for freedom; freedom from his past and freedom from dull expectations. As a writer with a blue collar background, or perhaps I should say a steel collar background, I understood the psychological risk of embracing art and literature. Ridicule is only part of the problem; failure and loss of self are much more present in the mind. I like to think that this laptop is my pickax, and that instead of digging into darkness I am digging out of it.