Monday, March 04, 2013


After working out my theory of liturgy, all based on “feeling” rather than dogma, individual human response rather than institutional imperatives, I find a crack.  It is the issue of compassion, defined as empathy with a suffering “other” to whom one responds  with attempts to help.   The problem arises when the help is offered on the terms of the helper rather than the helpee.  Usually on the assumption that the helpee doesn’t know what’s good for them anyway, so why ask?  

For years I saved a New Yorker cartoon about some men struggling with a piano stuck in a doorway.  A passerby comes along and generously helps them stuff it inside.  The only trouble is that they were trying to get it OUT.  It’s the whole phenomenon of helping old ladies cross streets through traffic when they didn’t WANT to cross the street.  When this happens to me I kick and scream, so I know firsthand how resentful and destructive the doer of the good deed can become if you resist “good.”

Somehow this is mixed into romantic love and parental care in many subtle and troublesome ways.  I’ll make an incomplete and probably confused list:

1.  Wishing to go back to childhood and therefore seeking someone to “help” one.
2.  Looking for the warm and merging feeling one got in childhood from comforting puppies and rocking one’s dollies.
3.  The amount of control that a suffering person has over helpers -- the Munchausen Syndrome reward.  Could be one’s own suffering or could be the second-hand suffering of one’s small dependent, like a child or pet.
4.  The panicky feeling as the receiver of help, esp. when docs, nurses, social workers, and clergy are out of sync with the need.  The old Vietnam trope of “ we had to burn the village in order to save it.”  Or the punishing parent who says “I’m doing this for your own good.”
5.  Enlisting the sympathy of others, esp. when the suffering is emotional.  Most people will be moved by obvious disease and trauma.  (Broken hearts not so much. People may disapprove of the emotional response and therefore welcome one’s suffering.)
6.  Knowing there is a need for intervention but being powerless to supply it.  A loved one is dying of cancer -- why can’t you cure it?

So the idea of “God” as the ultimate lover or parent or at least witness becomes very powerful indeed.

In practical terms, sometimes one is the helper and sometimes the helpee.  What are the principles? -- oh, before that, the awareness -- that must be in place in order to give and accept appropriate help triggered by compassion.  Many will be cultural.  Many will be circumstantial.  Some will be internal to both parties, only accessible by reflecting, which there may not be time for, or maybe overruled by the needs of the group/institution which no doubt wants trouble dealt with.  In jobs over the years I’ve done a LOT of emergency and nuisance complaint response.  The almost inevitable, though lamentable, practice becomes to “eliminate the complaint, not the situation.”  Worse than that, an effort to isolate and address the underlying causes of the recurring dilemma is difficult and maybe impossible.  How can anyone change the geological configuration of the planet that leads to economic inequities, that constant gradient between the haves and have nots?  So much depends upon whose crops are good that year.   Our willingness to use food for blackmail is even more evil than our withholding of drugs.

Then there’s the problem of what seems to be help that is actually a disguised means of making a profit, like the subsidies for high-priced drugs that keep people from banding together to demand more responsible pricing.  I found that hospitals hire chaplains in theory to help patients, but actually to keep order, suppress anger, convert action to obedient prayer.

Too big.  Too much to get one’s head around and still make it work.  

Here’s a weird idea.  Maybe the way to address compassion is not just amelioration, but the creation of pleasure, something liminal liturgy can do.  Not just a back rub but real and abandoned joy -- abandoned in the sense of letting one’s guard down and letting new things in.  We think of drugs in terms of constricting, limiting, but what if something like LSD or marijuana really DOES put the brain into a configuration that is accepting?  That’s often the reports of users, including those who use “theogens,” drugs that are supposed to “call God” as an awareness of joy, not judgment, punishment or even salvation.  Is that justification?

As long as I’m being Christian I’ll suggest the next weird idea as the “pick up your bed and walk” factor.  You remember that story about the paralyzed guy whose friends took him to Jesus, the specialist, to be healed.  When the crowd was so thick around the house (waiting list), the friends broke through the roof and lowered their friend, complete with bed, practically into Jesus’ lap.  His response:  “Pick up your bed and walk.”  No enabling here -- though the determined friends were certainly doing it.  The afflicted person picked up the bed and walked out with it.  It was a miracle.  Or something.  The point I get from it is that we should be our own doctors.  Why wait to be empowered?

We should be our own priests, our own liturgists.  Resist the idea of a specialized class with “magic.”  I don’t see any other way of guarding against the helper who assumes superiority and therefore justifies force, oppression, and hypocrisy -- or equally destructive -- from the helpee -- the wish to remain a child and let one’s powerlessness and dependency become an entitlement and then a demand.  But we should participate in our treatment.

With a friend who often discusses my posts “backstage,” this dynamic has been framed up in a triangle:  Mother Theresa, Christopher Hitchens, and the dying masses.  My friend says he appreciates both MT and CH and backs off from the masses but is glad if they are helped.  Regarding CH, my friend says, “He could be a hard nosed bastard. I think the main reason he didn't care for her was her propensity to toe the Vatican lines. If I were to create a tally sheet on both individuals as far as to what they left behind, Mother Theresa would be far ahead.”  This friend acts on his compassion and helps many.  

But I side with CH, fearing that MT is a step along the path to a bully Pope and a lot of bully priests who take out their frustrations by victimizing children, insisting it’s all an honor.  Until retirement I have not been one to avoid suffering masses, even those of other species.  Maybe I’ve shirked helpful interventions in specific cases.  I’ve walked off.  A hard-nosed bitch.  So I have to justify this at the level of looking for the causes of suffering, using this great retirement privilege of time to reflect.  It’s just that it seems to me that all of us should have the right to decide when or whether to cross the street and it would be a lot easier to ASK whether the piano is going in or out the door.

So what does my manuscript about liturgy need in order to discriminate between true “feeling of holiness” in the sense of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans and simply cultural warm-glow do-goodery?  


Chas Clifton said...



Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Chas. So what's the answer to my final question? I take it you've been following.

Prairie Mary

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I think the missing link is justice.

Prairie Mary

Chas Clifton said...

One needs the true presence of the gods -- but I, as you know, am a polytheist.

As for justice, there is a goddess for that -- several, in fact.

My approach is that of the Roman Stoics: Honor the gods and do your duty.

They are not concerned with our happiness except under certain conditions.