The Great Work: Hope

On Thursday, a three-week long depression broke. It was at the end of a day when I missed work due to a particularly bad headache. The headache broke after a few hours. The depression didn’t, though I felt that I could read. Sometimes, during the depression, I can’t. Everything feels flavorless.

I got a massage. It had been scheduled to help with some TMJ issues. After the massage, I felt something I hadn’t felt in three weeks: hope. Hope that life could be happy. Hope that I could fight for happiness. Hope that I could find happiness. Hope stopped feeling like something I had read in a book, something as fantastic and mythical as dragons and elves. Hope was something that I could have. It was a magic spell that could propel me forward, sustaining me as I tried to improve myself. The hope felt good. But it also scared me.

As I write this, I am a bit nervous because I don’t know how long the hope will last. The depression of the last three weeks wasn’t the first time I have felt this way, and it wasn’t the longest bought either. It wasn’t the darkest, though it does rank as a darker one. But as wonderful as these feelings of hope are, these feelings that make me think I can move forward and find happiness, I am nervous about when they break and the depression returns. I say “when” because, based on experience, I don’t feel confident saying “if.” I told my wife that it is like living with a roommate, and you never know what mood that roommate will be in come morning. You don’t know what mood he will be in an hour from now. Only, the apartment is your mind, and the roommate is you. And when the depression returns, you are the same person, though different. You are a different flavor of yourself. That which seemed clear and attainable before now seems distant. You fear that maybe it isn’t there at all. You are re-drawn, once solid lines and vibrant colors, now hazy and indistinct.

Right now, I have confidence that things will get better. That things can change. But I am nervous because I don’t feel in control of these emotions. I don’t know what triggers the change. But right now, I am searching, and I hope the confidence and momentum I have now will push me forward, through whatever is next.

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Becoming

Only the Lover Sings cover

For my birthday, my wife got me Only the Lover Sings by Josef Pieper. Pieper was a German philosopher who lived from 1907 to 1994, according to Wikipedia. This particular book contains meditations on art, work, and leisure. I love this book and I think I will revisit it often. I have found many passages that resonate with me, many that cause me to pause and contemplate my life.

In his essay, “Thoughts on Music”, Pieper states that

Man is never just “there.” Man “is” insofar as he “becomes”—not only in his physical reality, in growing, maturing, and eventually diminishing toward the end. In his spiritual reality, too, man is constantly moving on—he is existentially “becoming”; he is “on the way.” For man, to “be” means to “be on the way”—he cannot be in any other form; man is intrinsically a pilgrim, “not yet arrived,” regardless of whether he is aware of this or not, whether he accepts it or not.

This resonated with me because I have been feeling stuck for quite some time. But just as our physical bodies continue to progress or diminish with each action or inaction we take, so do our minds and spiritual existence progress or diminish. There are no empty actions; no free actions. All action is movement toward something. If I feel stuck, I am still moving toward something. And perhaps, in this state, the greatest act of autonomy I have is to choose what I move toward.

I don’t always know how to do this, though. I have many dreams, but often feel like I lack a clear path. Many times in the past, I have hesitated or lingered as I wait for a path to become clear. Recently, however, I have started thinking that I am at my worst in these moments. I think I often face more depression and angst when I am not working toward something, clear path or not. I sometimes think I need to constantly strive for something; to not strive is to despair. I can always choose to change, to re-align the path, but if I linger, I become rooted to a location. I can suffer through inaction or suffer through uncertain action. But only in one of these do I exert control over an outcome.

Put another way, it’s easier to steer a moving boat or car.

This realization is sometimes hard to hold. In my despair, I become frozen or paralyzed. I sometimes don’t see the point of moving. I forget that I am supposed to move or forget that I am trying to move. And so, I am grateful to Pieper for the reminder that even in paralysis, I am still becoming.

 

The Great Work

Colorized version of the Flammarion woodcut of a missionary looking through the horizon that which lay beyond it.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Universum.jpg

A few months ago I became fascinated by alchemy because of an episode (three episodes, actually) of Astonishing Legends. The episodes were about the Count of St. Germain. Now, to be clear, I do not think the Count is immortal. I do not think he had discovered the elixir of life. I think it is far more likely that he was a type of showman that moved in influential and powerful circles. For fun, I like to think he was the Doctor, and that Stephen Moffat missed an opportunity when he wrote “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

I’m already getting off topic.

The Count was actually my gateway to Western alchemy, and I became interested in the history alchemy. I was similarly interested in discussions of Chinese alchemy when I took a class on Religions of China and Japan while completing a religious studies degree. And while I think alchemy is interesting from a history-of-science-and-medicine standpoint, I think the symbolic language and concepts in alchemy are very powerful. Alchemy can be a useful metaphor for personal and spiritual growth.

In my religious studies class, we learned that Chinese alchemy started favoring spiritual refinement and development because, in a very practical sense, many early alchemists ended up poisoning themselves. But from that came theories of herbs and energy in Chinese medicine—and many blends of tea! In the West, alchemy led to early chemistry and medicine. It flourished in the early Muslim world. Indeed, the word alchemy is derived from Arabic: al-kīmiyā. One major difference between alchemy and modern chemistry, however, is the spiritual component. Chinese alchemy went on to refer to the refinement of the soul with the possibility of immortality. Western alchemy focused more on material goals of immortality and wealth—though prayer was still a strong component of Western alchemy.

I find the spiritual side of alchemy very intriguing: the idea that our bodies (or the self) are a container into which we put elements (ideas, concepts, theories) with the intention of refining ourselves, to reach greater understanding, enlightenment, or further discerning truth and reality. Granted, this includes the a priori assumption that an objective truth or reality exists outside of us—something that I think we must actually assume in order to move forward in any type of work. Science itself assumes that natural laws are knowable and stable; if they are not, we have no ability to measure and observe because they can shift or change. Likewise, if we want to refine ourselves and our understanding of life and reality, we have to assume such refinement is possible, which means there must be something outside the self to measure against. For some, that is the natural sciences, for others, God or spirituality. It can be ideals, dogma, or a code, but self-improvement is predicated on a rubric.

The interesting thing is that we often refine our rubric as we go . . . or at least, this INTP does. It’s kind of an INTP thing. I have come to refer to this attempt to understand reality and refine myself as The Great Work. In alchemical terms, the great work (or magnum opus) is the search for the philosopher’s stone. The philosopher’s stone is something you create (or another has created). The philosopher’s stone can lead one to immortality. Or, in the hermetic (and more metaphorical traditions), it is the pursuit of spiritual and intellectual transformation. It is individuation.

For my purposes, The Great Work is my attempt to understand reality and refine myself toward that understanding. It is the attempt to figure out if God is really there. It is the attempt to find that which brings me to life . . . that inspires me to move . . . that brings purpose and meaning. I struggle with all of these things. I joke that on my worst days, I’m a Nihilist; on my best, I’m an Existentialist.

This may not actually be a joke.

In my life, I have consumed many things that actually poisoned my attempt to refine myself. At times, these were consumed without much choice in the matter. But how we continue to refine ourselves is the key. I believe we can continue to move forward, though sometimes it may be hard.

And so, I may from time to time write about this journey, this Great Work. I will continue to research alchemy, to mine it for useful and essential elements to help bring together this artistic metaphor. I may try out theories as I develop them. This search may take years, and I may abandon the alchemy metaphor at some point. But, for now, this metaphor helps me create a framework for my search. It helps me organize thoughts, and allows me to embody them in a way that has previously been a struggle.

But the most important thing, at the moment, is that it is helping me to keep moving, to keep searching, and to keep hoping.