Monthly Archives: August 2011

Pleased With His Ingenuous, Open Way


Here is one of my favorite pieces of James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763: 

I then told my history to Mr. Johnson, which he listened to with attention. I told him how I was a very strict Christian, and was turned from that to infidelity. But that now I had got back to a very agreeable way of thinking. That I believed the Christian religion; though I might not be clear in many particulars. He was very much pleased with my ingenuous open way, and he cried, “Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you.” He then confirmed me in my belief by showing the force of testimony, and how little we could know of final causes; so that the objections of why was it so? or why was it not so? can avail little; and that for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious.

One of the most famous parts of this journal, or of any of Boswell’s journals, is his initial meeting with Samuel Johnson, who would become a great friend and mentor to Boswell. This particular journal also happens to be the one that is most widely available. Many of his more than thirty years worth of diaries are available only if you hunt for them, or are willing to pay a high price (Abe Books is the place for used volumes no longer in print). I’m slowly, but surely collecting all of Boswell’s writings (B&N has several free e-texts, happily, though only of his travel journals and the Life of Johnson).

What fascinates me about this exchange with Samuel Johnson is the way Boswell reveals his heart for Christianity, as well as his willingness to question his faith. In his journal at large, he also reveals his failure to adhere to any moral convictions. Boswell regularly falls into fits of melancholy, picks up prostitutes in back alleys, and then ends his weeks of despondency and hedonism by sitting in church pews or having meals with the stalwart Johnson.

My obsession with James Boswell is difficult to explain, but it has something to do with his paradoxes, which get at the heart of the human condition. Boswell defines himself as an outsider, even while supping with numerous friends and literary acquaintances. Boswell tells the truth about himself, even when the truth is repulsive. But mostly, I appreciate him because he’s the embodiment of the Bible verse, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). For that, Johnson, who was no less human than Boswell, but was more mature, was a stable influence in Boswell’s intellectual world.

And–as an image of Johnson’s maturity–I’d like to highlight this sentiment of his: for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious. Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I find the unity movement of Christianity to be a tiresome affair–a tiresome, political affair. I’m frustrated when those involved in this movement highlight the differences between denominations and desire to bring all Christians together under one banner. The differences, according to Johnson, are trivial. They’re trivial enough that the gospel continues to go forth, despite the lack of unity.

As far as Boswell’s soul, I can’t make any claims about it. I can only read his words and surmise and feel wretchedly bad at his depravity, his honesty, and his continuous attempts at bravado, despite his overarching humility and lack of confidence.

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Look, My Animus is Wearing a Suit!

He transformed into a natty fellow last night. I don’t how it happened. One night, he’s a sixties throwback with a ponytail, who bullies me; the next, he’s wearing a ratty flannel and acting complacent. And then he transforms himself into this perfectly dressed, charming, magnanimous guy with a great haircut. Not only that, but he speaks multiple languages, including all the Romance idioms, and he plays several instruments. He’s kind, rather than argumentative, and never, never complacent. Did I mention how charming he is? Let me tell you something–this guy can’t be my animus. It would be like forcing Simon Pegg into a snazzy suit and shoving a cocktail in his hand.

Don’t get me wrong. As much as I’d like to tap into the charming inner place of my soul, I’m more likely to trip on my tap shoes and fall off the stage. Years later, I’ll argue with you over whether or not your interpretation of my fall is the correct one. I might even find an expert to back me up. Nix that–I am the expert (on tripping over myself, anyway). So why do I need to wear a suit, again?

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My Frail Attempt at Understanding Amazing Grace

Most of the words that come out of my mouth are meant to annoy others. When I hear yet another rendition of John Newton’s Amazing Grace on the radio or at a church gathering, my cynical response is generally, “Yeah, I know, 21st C Americans couldn’t begin to write poetry as well as 18th C Brits, so why bother?” But that isn’t it, is it? That’s not why this legendary song is so popular, despite that I really, really desire to annoy people. Our ineptness to pen powerful words in corresponding lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter is not the point.

The point is what the song represents. It’s no secret that I’m passionate about the Enlightenment, specifically the British Enlightenment. But what seems to have been lost to many of my fellow countrymen is that the values that inspired the American revolution sprang from British Enlightenment thinking. These values are not necessarily Christian in nature. However, consider for a moment some of these values: reason as a method to reform society and disseminate knowledge, the acceptance of intellectual debate, and the focus on the individual. All of these values fit neatly into the Christian ones of propagating the gospel, reforming problems and injustice in society, and bringing individuals to Christ. Furthermore, Enlightenment values inspired the necessary debates that ended slavery and began the feminist movement, because, according to the value system, all people are equal, not simply regarding the justice system, but in God’s eyes as well. God sent his son to save black and white, male and female, slave and free.

When politically minded Christians such as William Wilberforce fought to end slavery, he used Enlightenment values to do so–values not elucidated by philosophers, but by Jesus Christ, himself. For those in the dark, Jesus called his people to a higher standard than the law. Jesus wanted the hearts of men, and not simply the willingness to follow a set of regulations. Oh, didn’t you know? Slavery was regulated in the Old Testament law. It was regulated in order that corrupt men couldn’t take advantage of the system that kept the market system afloat with cheap labor. Slavery was regulated because God hates injustice. And for that reason, men such as William Wilberforce used Enlightenment values to altogether abolish slavery in the justice system.

That intangible freedom of the individual–that is the heart of the poem Amazing Grace. Mankind is corrupt and doesn’t deserve it, but that doesn’t change mankind’s need for it. We need freedom from slavery in so many ways, and when I hear that yet another singer has redone these words to yet another tune, has sung Newton’s words one more time, I realize that all is not lost in this country. The Enlightenment values we began with are not lost to us.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

John Newton (1725-1807)

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The Yin Yang of Imagination

“Putting people in a positive mood roughly doubled their accuracy at [remote association problems]. All of a sudden, they were twice as good at identifying problems with possible solutions. This suggests that anything that makes us happier, reducing vigilance and anxiety, might also make us more creative. We can detect more remote associations, of course, but we also know which associations are worth pursuing, which is probably even more important. It doesn’t matter if it’s pot, chocolate or a stand-up comic — those substances or experiences that put a smile on our face can also increase the powers of the imagination, at least when solving particular creative problems.” From the wired.com article Does Marijuana Make You Stupid? by Johan Lehrer

In general, Wired has the best articles. And this article–well, it wasn’t a letdown. But what struck me was not the current research proving that marijuana isn’t as detrimental to the mind as once presupposed by those who opposed it. What struck me was the quote above. Positive thinking allays anxiety and supports creative problem solving.

And all this time, I thought I had the inability to access the creative section of my brain. All this time, I believed I was incapable of being clever enough to solve problems. Come to find out I’ve been subverting myself with my negative thought processes. This will come as a no-brainer to some of you out there. Not to me, though. I’ve suffered from excruciating anxiety my entire life. The other night, in fact, I kept myself awake worrying over my housekeeping skills, or my lack thereof. I realized I had to take charge of my household in order to alleviate my panic. After a few long days of organizing and cleaning and making business phone calls I’d previously avoided, I felt a lot less panic, and a lot more distress.

Taking charge, unfortunately, doesn’t force me into positive thinking patterns. I feel relieved, and that’s all. At the same time, I feel incapable of harnessing my creative thoughts and steering them toward imagination.When I fail to use my imagination, I’m clearly confronting the real world, and this never makes me happy. Yet, without positive thinking, I can’t use my imagination.

Hmm. Maybe there’s something in that. Imagination and positive thinking may be a yin yang balance. One may not operate without the other. The descending quality of positive thinking may release the centrifugal force of creativity. I’m imagining it (probably due to my lack of creativity) as a stone dropped in placid water. The stone of positive thought descends from the mind, where it’s processed, down into the heart. Meanwhile, creativity expands outwardly from the heart like the ripples on the water.

And I didn’t even need to smoke marijuana in order to figure that out!

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Aphorisms Anonymous: It’s a One-Step Process

William Hogarth from his series Marriage a la Mode 1743-1745

It’s no secret that my husband and I have been examining ourselves deeply in order to understand our inner, core persons better. In doing so, it came to our attention that my husband is an aphorism addict. By the way, this is predicted by certain personality types–namely, the annoying ones. No, I didn’t mean that. But I do know a woman who used to rail on me for never divulging my innermost thoughts to her. So I decided to take the risk, and wouldn’t you know it–she took my ruminations, my joys, my sorrows, and answered them all with annoying platitudes.

Now, aphorisms are a little different than platitudes. Platitudes spring from a soul who’s decided she already has all the answers and, therefore, has no need for creative problem solving. Aphorisms spring from the lips of a man who loves to be clever and pithy in order to maintain the notion that everything’s all right with his world. Sometimes, the man in question creates his own aphorisms because the man I speak of is creative in his own right. For the purpose of our mutual quest for inner health, my husband decided he would eradicate all aphorisms from his conversations with others. I, of course, would be the receiving end of his prototype discussions that use no pithy expressions. Yes, I’m already aware that when two people have a conversation and one is the receiving end of the discussion, no conversation is actually occurring. But I’m a good wife (on Thursdays), and so I chose to be supportive regardless (because it happened to be Thursday).

Sample conversation:

Husband: Determine this diurnal course whom you will appreciate with your ardent servanthood.
Wife: Huh?
Husband: A homo sapien is inefficacious at obliging two authority figures.
Wife: By that you mean . . . ?
Husband: A commander is a merchant of expectation.
Wife: And you expect me to do what?
Husband: A mistress’s domain of vassalage is in her husband’s castle.
Wife: Yes, I’ve come to that conclusion, too.

As you can see, the one-step process for ridding aphorisms from daily communication is to carry a thesaurus with you wherever you go. In the last case, the husband was doubly clever at obscuring his use of two aphorisms in one statement. Nice use of your archives, Darling, as well as your thesaurus!* Well, I might have to say that these are truisms rather than aphorisms, or falsisms in regards to the last, but who am I to dispute with the sovereign of my fortress?

I think we learned a lot from this exercise. My husband and I are slowly but surely moving toward our directions of integration and health. May you also achieve inner wisdom today. And remember, a wise head makes a closed mouth. I feel a rash coming on. Are aphorisms contagious?

*Disclaimer: The use of Darling here is ambiguous because this conversation may or may not have ever occurred.

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