I’m about to go to a twelve step meeting, like ones I have been attending for several decades, and at this particular meeting I will get my chip.  This chip is a metal disk the size of a Kennedy half dollar, with the Serenity Prayer on one side, and the phrase To thine own self be true, on the other.  Shakespeare, a one man Scripture, authored this oft heard yet trenchant phrase and he had Polonius speak it in Hamlet.  Polonius died tragically, wouldn’t you know.

I’ve been thinking about this phrase and its many cousins for some time.  For the past eighteen months, I have been in the wilderness.  I’m just there.  I am not somewhere else, though if I were in charge, I think I would be elsewhere, not wilderness, more city or brass band or ecstasy (the non-pharma kind).  More assurity,  more clarity, more purpose, yes, more purpose.

One would think that at 60 purpose would be resolved.  One would think that one could state in a simple declarative sentence to the satisfaction of all one’s purpose.  The accumulated achievements of one’s life, if such a pile could be gathered, would surely declare, hopefully once and for all, one’s purpose.

But I am sensing one’s purpose, actually, my purpose, is not so easily ascertained.

I loved graphs as a boy, and I still do.  If I graphed my life in linear time, there would be parallel lines correlating my purpose with the moral tasks my religious faith at any point in my development imposed.

But in that simple graph, there would be a faint disruptive line, irregular, sometimes seemingly erratic, which would criss-cross both purpose and religious faith and make a jumble of them, point out their too perfectly connectedness.  That faint line would grow darker and more vibrant over the length of the graph, and if viewed closely, would not quite be on the surface of the graph paper, but somehow hovering just over the page, not wanting to be so easily defined and managed, by me or by others.

This third line I understand somehow as my soul, manifest in my intuition.    It has little to do with my life’s endeavors and little to do with the religious faith I inherited at birth and which was reinforced in ways unchartable but immutable over the course of my life.  I rue neither, and am glad for my life’s experience.   But I increasingly sense, with nothing but my intuition to guide me, that the wilderness portends an encounter…not a purpose.

In the first few months of this wilderness occupation, not knowing its duration or durability, I grew distressed with its effects on me.  Among my many explorations, I sought medical guidance, wondering if in fact my fugue might be caused by mere physiological phenomenon (I hoped so, in any event).  My doc wanted to rule out any potential causes related to neurological phenomena and so I met with a neurologist.  He did a work up over the course of an hour, and at the end said:

I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is there is no sign of any neurological problem that we need to be concerned with.  Bill, as a psychologist, you appreciate you mainly deal with the wounds of childhood in your adult clients, now writ large as they encumber your patients today.  And so like you:  I manage the effects of childhood disorders at whatever age they come into my office.  You have been managing three such disorders since childhood, without the benefit of diagnostic or medical or pharmacological help.  I see in your notes that you were raised in an alcoholic household.  In effect, I would assert you raised yourself, and you did so managing symptoms of these three disorders, which I suspect caused you some great travail.  The kicker is, you managed them so well that they have not outwardly interfered with your life.   But, untreated, they continue to extract a price from you, as they evidently do still.

I first of all was amazed at his perception, his literal perception, that he could observe these manifestations that I had hid, or thought I had, since I was a young boy.

He offered me a pharmacological response to offset their symptoms.   I declined.

What has haunted me since this productive visit with the neurologist is that the symptoms he noted I, and many others, have or once regarded as character defects, flaws in self control, causes of both discipline and shame, the eradication of the effects of which became moral targets for me for which no amount of effort was mountable to offset their daily, hourly, minutely demands.   Not unlike my early understanding of my sexuality, the homo-part and the sex-part.  Everything seemed to be something that needed to be willed away, to be purified, but ultimately, to what end?

I share this story because I encounter daily similar stories from others, perhaps such stories reside in us all.  That which became the object of religious zeal has so often not been the encounter with Love which must be its only goal, and the creation of justice, which must be the path, but instead, the purification of the self, understood primarily as the ego, with the assistance of a highly cultivated super-ego to provide constant instruction.

But this is not a problem of religion alone.  Families, social structures, economic systems all play their part.  Achievement, a name, a legacy, a reputation, accumulation, a total and seamless personal defense system these become the goals of life, the absolutes, the purpose for which we were created, if there is nothing in life to which we submit greater than our paltry selves.

My life has in some fundamental way been a grand purification project.   Everything needed to be perfected.  More than everything.  This is full time work.  Actually, because it seeps into one’s unconscious and works itself out in one’s dreams, it is work 24/7. I have been pretty good at it, had some achievements, created a name for myself, perhaps a legacy, certainly a reputation, accumulation as if there were no tomorrow, which accumulation might insure there isn’t, and a pretty good defense system, though, unfortunately for the perfection project, not quite seamless.  My absolutes, in the finest traditions of Thomistic philosophy, were very absolute.  As an Enneagram One, for your aficionados, I was well prepped for this role, and had a variety of perfecting arrows in my ample quiver.

So how is it I find myself, nonetheless, in the wilderness?

Come to find that the perfection project is not sufficient!  Who knew?

On a retreat eighteen months ago, about which I have previously written in this blog, I was changed.   But I was not yet ready for the change.  Through no fault of my own, I am quick to add.  In these eighteen months, much has been taken away from me.  Much assurance.  Much insurance.  So many absolutes.  So much knowledge.  The solace of connections on the cheap, as if there were no price to pay for veracity.  Some apparently not essential hope that the human project is one that extends forever in one direction, regardless of what we do to the environment in which the project unfolds.  This I can hardly bear, and I am very often reduced to tears, tears of grief and tears of awareness of the profound limitations we humans face, both those our facticity entails, and those our rampant egos have imposed on us and on our sublimely beautiful planet.  We trust in every and any solution any charlatan with a perfection project of his own offers as long as he is culturally appropriate to our moment and class and offers a plan other than one grounded in Love and trod in justice.

I have been, like all human beings, thus torn.  I like my charlatans , don’t think for a minute I don’t.

But they are not so active in the wilderness.

In the wilderness, intuition is again become my essential guide.  When I was a young man just starting my purpose-filled life in the Bay Area, there was a quote in Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle by Bill Ball, the long time and deeply admired director of the American Conservatory Theatre.  Ball said:  I have come to trust my intuition at all times, in every situation, with every person I meet.   I knew Ball’s assertion to be true, but was yet incapable of holding the width and breadth of that truth.  And yet, in a email missive the Franciscan author Richard Rohr sent out this very week, he reminds me: the best thing I can possibly do… is to help people to recognize and trust their own deeper and even deepest spiritual intuitions.

When I was a boy, living in a family-as-village of ten, I knew many things, certain things, unspoken things, denied things.  And I knew that I knew them, though I could not explain to anyone how that was or could be so.  But that which I knew I did not doubt.  What I knew did not jive with what one might call the real order of things, the way things were explained, or parsed, or enunciated.  The adults were not letting me know they too knew these things, if in fact they did, though that did not deter me from receiving that which I came to know.  What I knew had nothing to do with the perfection project, but, like for the children in Pan’s Labyrinth, offered a richer understanding of life.

This deep dynamic within never left me, though I constantly downplayed its import and unshakeable presence.  I gave over significant parts of myself to others, to institutions and persons who did not merit the giving.  Not because they were bad or ill-intentioned, though sometimes they might have been.  No, because those givings-over were not corresponded to by this deep sense I have always had.  The results have been predictably counter-productive.   And have led me to the wilderness.

The wilderness is map and chart and path void.  Hence, wilderness.

But the profound grief I first encountered, so unnerving for so many months I did not know how to make it through, has given way to an immensity of space, not fecund, but neither barren.  And in the wilderness there are days of full sun and nights of moonlight.

The Italian Jungian analyst Aldo Carotenuto grapples with the lack of correspondence between a person’s inner and outer states, which is the essence of that with which I grapple today.  In a stirring passage from The Vertical Labyrinth, he suggests that a person’s inability to demonstrate their own value and richness, wherein creativity… flourishes, lies in a fundamental and structural fear of other people’s envy. To be creative, to carry the world forward by one’s thought or by one’s works, means to risk drawing down hatred on oneself, and only someone capable of withstanding it is able to say the right words… What prevents us from discovering ourselves and from expressing our truth is always the fear of losing other people’s love.

I came upon this passage early this summer.  It glistened on the page.  It is what I hear daily, in very different constructs, from the clients with whom I work, whom I have grown to love.  It is what in my own life and in the lives of those in my life, often friends, extended family, the dying, those in prison, the young, those cast out of the formal structures of society.  This is at the heart of the human dilemma:  To become ourselves, our human project, to abandon the perfections and projects the world sets out for us, to go beyond all those who threaten to withdraw love in the myriad and skillful ways that occurs, most subliminally, that keep us from the kind of freedom the wisest spiritual guides have spoken, the freedom from the false self.  It is what the whole of the life of Jesus bespoke.  You must risk everything.  You must go deep inside.  You must trust the deepest knowing you have.  Even when it appears to have vanished, even when it leaves you bereft, even when it leaves you alone.

The wilderness is an alone place.  Is necessarily so.  Its purposes, there’s that word again, are singular.  That we might become ourselves regardless of cost.  Irregardless of cost.  Without regard to cost.

To stay in the wilderness as long as it is required of us means to know each day we have no map nor  chart nor clearly delineated path.  It means that the ones whose love we have thought we could not live without we either find out we can or that we need not fear losing.  It means that our deepest knowing, available to every human being, is sufficient as a source of our wits for today.  We are guaranteed nothing more, expect that we will beyond our recognition be grounded in Love, and invited to trod the path of justice.

Everything else, desert dust.