It seems every day another tennis star succumbs to a self-described “mental health issue” that results in dropping out of tournaments or refusing interviews. There was the first case that dominated the sports page for weeks — Naiomi Osaka.
A headline today reads: To Play Tennis, Naomi Osaka finds a new purpose: feeling good about herself is her challenge.
Can you imagine world champions in golf or professional football confessing publicly that they need time off from the competition, from the interviews, from the stress? Can you imagine them confessing that they need to work on feeling good about themselves — confessing that they need to work on their mental health?
I happened to see a blimp’s eye view of a tennis tournament — a grandstand filled to capacity, the green of the court set off nicely, two tiny figures in tennis whites mid-way through a rally. Then it all became clear.
If you play football you’re not alone. You have teammates to back you if you blunder. You have teammates to embrace you when you score, and teammates to cheer when you succeed. Same for baseball. Making an error doesn’t turn your teammates against you. They sympathize.
In tennis — especially tennis singles — everything depends on you alone: serve after serve, volley after volley, netball after netball, missed return after missed return.
You’re singularly alone.
And if you feel bad about your play, you feel bad about yourself — there are no teammates to buck you up or give you a reassuring pat on the back, or share the burden of a miscue or error.
In tennis it’s entirely up to you — you alone — whether you feel good about yourself. No wonder Osaka avoids critical questions from the press, and has what the press now calls — in her case, and in other emerging cases of tennis pros — “mental health issues.”
Playing tennis is singularly lonely. The spotlight is singularly focused.
Postscript: From today’s sports page (Sept 7th):
“Osaka’s tournament ended this time with a loss to Fernandez followed by a tearful announcement that she will take an indefinite leave from tennis. Iga Swiatek, the Polish star who won the 2020 French Open at 19 without losing a set, spent much of her upset loss Monday against Belinda Bencic of Switzerland screaming at her coach and the sports psychologist who travels with her.
By now it is accepted wisdom that tennis has a tendency to eat its young like few other sports. Managing life as a young star on the tennis tour is a physical and mental test that trips up nearly every player at some point, especially those who break through early and then are suddenly expected to compete at the highest level nearly every time they take the court.”
It’s nearly impossible to articulate the devastation wrought by the recent hurricane.
We see news reports, photos, video. The end of the world for so many people: trapped in basement apartments (water rushing in if the doors open in; doors jammed if they open out — cars inundated, passengers trapped — home roofs ripped off).
Short of death but still devastating — homeowners helplessly rummaging through debris. Unspeakable anguish.
And by what twist of fate do I, here in Maine, undergo less than a good downpour?
Should I say fate has no rationale? (By definition?)
I awoke with a sense of relief. A load had lifted. Was I tending toward spiritual sprightliness? But alas, what really had happened?
Yesterday was All Saints Day, or Day of the Dead. During this Sunday the church community is invited to step forward, if they wish, to light a small candle near the altar in memory of someone recently dead. I surprised myself, rising without premeditation to light a candle for Michael Bachem, who died roughly a year ago. It was also support for his wife, my friend – and like Michael, a soulmate. She’s part of my Portland family.
Saturday I was reading an essay by a philosopher I deeply admire, Kelly Dean Jolley, on Liturgy – not a theme I’d expect from a philosopher. He writes wonderfully about Wittgenstein and Thoreau and occasionally about Eastern Orthodoxy. The essay untied a knot of issues for me.
In Liturgical moments, he wrote, we are called individually and collectively to respond from the heart with shared words that are addressed to each other and also to a presence beyond — hovering behind the organ pipes, during the prelude, behind the pulpit, descending through stained glass windows or down from the ceiling arches, from anywhere the holy of holies might dwell.
After church my little family of five gathered at Snow Squall for late brunch – an easy transitional (and by now, traditional) ceremony of communion and thanksgiving, complete with mimosas and eggs-on-toast. It’s ceremonial, and nearly Liturgical: we are present to each other and present to ourselves one by one inwardly, and open to a hovering love and goodness. I’d add “justice,” but focus on justice too easily leads to more injustice and melancholy than we want at our table.
Love and goodness are often implicit in our conversations, embodied in the to-and-fro flow of heartfelt words and openhearted listening. We’re a family at peace in active listening and responsiveness to each other.
The Liturgical bread-breaking, wine-sipping, candle-lighting space of the church is transported lock-stock-and-barrel to our meals and then further outward to the wider community of neighbors and acquaintances, whether or not they’re local churchgoers, with whom we share neighbor-respect and love. Brunch is a transitional service half way to home. This immersion in Liturgical Reality, in its Lived-Reality, is totally new to me. I’m quite startled that I’m in the midst of it all.
As if responsive to my transition, The Washington Post asks, “Love thy Neighbor?” It asks this in light of a suburbanite’s tackling Senator Rand Paul on his front lawn. And the Post answers, “It’s not as strong as it used to be!” The suburbs are unburdening themselves of neighbor-love while I find myself unburdening myself of skepticism about neighbor love here in Portland.
I let skepticism go without adding any new attestation of non-skeptical belief. Instead, I find myself attaining whole-heartedness and light-heartedness in simple things. My Sunday epiphany was lighting a candle to the dead. This lifted my unbelief about that Liturgical gesture. Now I seem to have slipped toward a congregational neighbor-love that spills out from my church. Liturgical space drifts like a cloud beyond the choirs, pulpits, and arched ceilings where it begins. It marks communion with others that defeats loneliness and persistently heavy hearts.
I doubt belief or unbelief (faith or unfaith) is a crystal-clear all-or-nothing issue. I’d rather say, for me, that it’s distributed across areas of activity and concern, sometimes stronger, sometimes, weaker — everything from lighting candles to chatting over coffee to giving talks or sermons from the pulpit, and on to smiling at neighborhood strangers or speaking with them.
When a provoking Fundamentalist or MegaChurcher asks if I’m a believer, I’ll retort with an immediate, “No!” (meaning, “not your God or Liturgy”) and I won’t bother to elaborate. Among zealous skeptics I’ll often refer passionately to Alyosha Karamazov, defending his belief. If friends from my church ask me, I’ll pause, wondering where to begin.
In my 20’s I came to see that Alyosha and the Elder, Zossima – two of Dostoevsky’s near-saints — were far better than the skeptical, even murderous, brother, Ivan. And these believers were miles better than their father, a garbage-dump. But Alyosha and Zossima are literary figures. Do they bear on my own spiritual floundering?
I soon learned to answer Ivan’s jaded objections to his little brother’s “naïve” Christian belief. I came to see that Ivan’s brilliant story of the Grand Inquisitor, who confronts and arrests Christ, is an unintended defense of Christ — not a defense of the Spanish Inquisition. In seeing Christ embrace the Inquisitor who would burn him, I became a disciple. But then I wondered how Ivan, an atheist, could have invented this sublime and troubling fable. And without formal conversion could I really believe in Christ, not just Dostoevsky’s literary Christ?
These affinities for religious writers and figures, in my writing and teaching, meant that it became easier to accept the everyday religious life of my friends. By my 50’s, one or two were ordained ministers. I was not a skeptical and cruel Ivan (as I could have been in adolescence) but I was far from holding the gravitas of Zossima or Alyosha. I found Kierkegaard an enormously sympathetic thinker. I didn’t know any Megachurchers or Fundamentalists so I didn’t have to be an adamant skeptic. I was partially unburdened of disbelief.
My minister-friends, to my liking, ran against the grain of all-too-human common secular and anti-religious predilections. They knew I responded to spiritual cues from Kierkegaard and Thoreau, from the Whirlwind’s Voice in Job, and from the Christ who confronts the Grand Inquisitor. The Bible was central for them but none were thumpers or proselytizers. They saw no threat in my portion of unbelief. It wasn’t noted. Even if our communion was not Liturgical, we shared Christian neighborliness and sensitivity to Creation and respect for the history of Christian belief. But the ideas of communion, neighborliness, or Liturgy were not forefront for me yet.
I could say that I believe in the God of Alyosha but not of Joseph Smith, that I believe in the God of Job but not in the God of his friends, that I believe in Quaker Silence and Gregorian Chant and in the God of Glory Bach addresses in his St Mathew Passion. I can work from the bottom up, finding an experiential basis for the presence of the Divine. “Voila! Wow! Let’s start with that infant’s smile, or the grandeur of the sea!” Experience can be exquisite and exclamatory. In contrast, I feel very uncomfortable working top down from a thesis that God exists — with these attributes and intentions, and not those. I’d reject taking God as an explanatory hypothesis. I’d begin with the tangible, the tactile — with poetic-religious evocations of the effects this God seems to have on my immersions in everyday life. When you ask me, “Do you believe in neighbor-love?” or “Do you believe that Bach’s St. Matthew is Liturgy?” the questions open toward friendly and fruitful probing. They don’t encourage quick retorts. The issue of God or belief should be invitational, not the presumption of a “Yes-or-No” option-box to check.
I love art and music, Rembrandt and Bach, but that’s a shallow confession if I can’t say what sort of music or art, which portraits of Rembrandt, which parts of which Bach Prelude I love. The more I can follow up, the less shallow my attestation of love. If I believe, I need to say what sort of Christianity, what sort of Liturgy, what sort of God. I’ll vouch for the God of Psalms (most of the time), but avoid the God who stalks Moses and wants to kill him. I don’t want an explanation of God’s desire to kill – that’s beyond excuse.
Appeals and responses in Liturgical space – hearing the appeal of the candle and answering it through lighting it — take place in conversational space. We live, move, and have our being in listening, responsive, conversational space. Even quite silent gestures and actions are interpersonal and conversational.
We are to some extent rational and knowing, political and religious, passionate and death-tending animals. But these stretches of our existence play out in the give-and-take of tacit or explicit conversational responsiveness.
We listen and respond to starry nights. We smile with smiling children. We are attracted or repelled by rumors of war or whispers from the Divine. Actions and passions are crucial. These too are interpersonal and communicative. In solitude we are in subdued inner conversations with ourselves and our settings. Even the primal “brute struggle for survival” is not just power versus power. It occurs within conversational dynamics: “It’s you or me, brother!” “I’d rather kill, and die a soldier, than starve.” “Save your family first!”
An exclamatory interpersonal response is as fundamental as an explanatory one — in fact, it’s more fundamental. We exclaim that we fear or are in love, are attracted or repulsed. Explanation is for a quiet hour apart from the immediacy of exclamatory response. An address arrives from the world. I have a startle response to it, or a subdued acknowledgement of it. Then, sometimes, I wonder what has just happened and I crave an explanation. Or else I might continue to bask in the excitement of a startling sunset or kiss or cadence. But whatever draws my attention and elicits exclamations: Think of that! What’s going on! Where did you come from! puts the explanation-train in motion. Or I’m content to just bask.
I need to leave the urgency of explanations to get back to living and a cup of coffee, or a remembered kiss. Of course we might start explaining in the casual way we start cross-word puzzles, as a distracting pastime. But it seems enough to stick to explaining what elicits a degree of exclamation. And exclamations easily survive, and should survive, explanations – which have to stop sometime. After I’ve “explained” Bach I should still be moved by him, beyond all explanation. And if exclamatory, “wow-reactions” or sublime-responsive living in an inexplicable world is indeed worthwhile, then it’s worthwhile listening for more than explanations.
In Liturgical space I speak words of Liturgy and mean them. I can say “Shana Tova” during Rosh Hashanah, or the Days of Awe, or say “Lila tov” for “Good night.” I shift from initial mimicking sounds to uttering sounds with sense for me and others I address. With time I’ll know when I mean words from the heart, rather than only repeating conventional jabber. I might say “For thine is the kingdom and power forever” merely to show my knowledge of a text rather than to enter the Liturgical space in a dance of praise to a presence who listens, well beyond my ken.
If I utter the words of the prayer, “Mother-Father, hallowed be thy name” do I feel the resonance of “mother-father” deep within – or is this like singing German lieder, where I let the words flow out, however beautifully, in great ignorance of their full meaning? (I can make them moments in a musical phrase without making them moments of inter-personal rapport.)
There’s a wonderful moment in the film version of Brideshead Revisited when a crass outsider meets those from the family estate to ask for the daughter’s hand – no doubt wanting to marry her for her riches as much as her beauty. He learns that as Roman Catholics the Brideshead family will not abide marriage to a non-Catholic. Impatiently, he asks, “Well, what do I have to say?” – as if rattling off a formula will make him an instant Roman Catholic. Surely, words of belief count only when declared in Liturgical space, attuned to the resonances of Liturgy.
My penchant for disbelief never interfered with my singing religious music – Bach’s passions, protestant hymns, weekly choir anthems. In fact, I had a musical- religious meltdown decades ago in the midst of singing Bach’s St. Mathew.
I was onstage as the tenor-evangelist utters Jesus’ cry, “My Lord, my Lord, why has thou forsaken me?” and gives up the ghost. The stage and audience fall motionless, silent. Death is present. The reverential silence lasts and lasts. The conductor is stock still. I shook, stifling tears. At last the chorus enters pianissimo. “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden . . .” After three measures I can crawl in. That moment left a lasting crack in my unbelief.
Before falling in love with Maggie Smith, I disbelieved there could be spunk or beauty or attractiveness in age. Growing up I had no encounters with lovable, quirky, elderly relatives or neighbors – only cranky or quiet ones. My ageism festered undetected. It was a burden that continued to seal me off from wise elders, the beauty of canes, or the loveliness of smiles creased with age. It’s now crystal clear that neighbor-love means unburdening myself of disbelief in the loveableness of my neighbor, of whatever age. Maggie Smiths and Candles for the Dead and Infant Smiles are now in a Liturgical space previously inhabited only by Bach Passions. And there is still much ignorance and disbelief to dismantle.
We get to faith or belief – if we do – by this or that belief, perhaps, or by this or that encounter. Some just follow the footsteps of their mothers, fathers, and relatives. They’re born into it and live happily ever-after. Some suffer through divorce from an inherited marriage and move only cautiously toward a new tradition or belief. Some shop. Endlessly. Some are foxhole or crisis converts. My path is not exactly any one of these. Perhaps all paths are unique. I’ve moved toward belief by learning what it is to embrace, and be embraced by, Liturgical space. And by unburdening myself of obstacles.
In youth I absorbed a kind of cocky anti-authoritarianism (not entirely a bad thing). Emerson intoned, “He would be a man (– let’s add, or a woman) must be a non-conformist.” That was my mantra. Even in high school, Thoreau was a hero because he was anti-slavery, anti-bourgeois consumerism and avoided Concord’s well-heeled churchgoers. He preferred tribal Native-American Liturgical space, and the crazy Liturgical call and response of loons across the pond. And as I came to teach Kierkegaard and Tillich and Marcel in the University, I could maintain an anti-authoritarian, anti-zealot stance while teaching unmistakably religious thinkers sympathetically. In their own time they were religious outsiders.
In college suspicion of Liturgy fell in with suspicion of reigning politics, racism, and war-mongering. What escaped suspicion, and deserved unstinting belief, was Blue Grass, Socialism, Death of God Theology, Dylan — and the Yippee dogma of Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” We had to bend as our bodies entered fortydom and more. We had to unburden ourselves of disbelief in the middle-aged or middle-classed. The moneyed classes remained off the map.
Unbelief happens outside Liturgical space. Politics ought to be the communion of the city or polis, with a mildly Liturgical space emergent at inaugurations and perhaps in grieving the dead. But politics is more a hopefully civilized, negotiated struggle for power than any call and response in Liturgical space. There is little room for song or communion, heart-to-heart action or deep listening.
If everyday life has become largely politics, including the politics of workplace and even of family life, there will be little place for faith or belief. For me, sensing Liturgical space, the space of spirit, is the richest way for me to understand and enact the heavens and vows of communion, good-will, mutual blessing, kind-heartedness, that are at the heart of Christian faith.
To enter belief through Liturgical space sidesteps the trap of holding to a set of assertions or cognitive theses, say about God’s attributes, the beginning of the cosmos, or eternal life. Clutched tightly in hand, these theses are recited by rote or held at an examiner’s distance for revision or critique. They are far outside the Liturgical space that offers rich portions of bracing and consoling religious life – singing, candle lighting, praying, weeping at funerals – portions waiting our gentle embrace.
The unexamined life is not worth living. As a philosopher, you’d expect me to say this. But we also need a life centered in and radiating out from mutual embrace. We need – I need — a life of candles for the dead and blessings for the new-born, of giving alms for the needy and sharing good humor with the neighbor, of grieving great loss. I need the gifts of Liturgical life invading secular life at least some of the time. And I trust that in some subtle, unprovable, unarguable sense, life gives the values that are the ultimate measure of any life I could call my own.
[editorial note — I found this essay almost by accident amongst earlier blog musings. I had forgotten it. And was moved by it. And thought it was worth shuffling to the top of my recent musings.]
Some religious believers seem to inherit their beliefs like the inheritance of grandpa’s well-worn sweater. Parents take it from the attic for you, and you’re pleased with the feel and heritage of the gift.
Somehow that seems too easy, at least for many folks. Belief can be hard won, and seem to mature through trial and error. You can imagine a soon-to-become believer pulled this way and that, the outcome of this tug of war being, for a time — perhaps a lengthy time — undecided.
Short of a trial, one might suspect that a basic faith-orientation — most likely a family inheritance — gets amended and refined as one matures.
Or the whole Kit & Kaboodle might get retired, get hoisted into the attic as no more than a dusty curiosity. That seems often to happen as one generation succeeds another. The parents have one density of belief and the kids leave the whole thing to one side.
As my title suggests, belief might also come as a thunderclap. With a BANG one is shaken to the core. Instant Conversion. Then belief is a non-negotiated transformation. Once you’ve been startled to the core, you don’t argue with, or ponder, the reality of the thunderclap.
There are plenty of stories of dramatic conversion — if not thunder, then God descending and knocking you off your horse.
In my own case, there was no inheritance, and no thunderclap. And no process of gathering evidence for belief.
I’d say mine was a process of incremental access to the holy or divine.
That’s the idea of the holy speaking through gentle rain. If the divine intrudes as a thunderclap, there’s no argument, no missing the intrusion, or doubting the event. On the other hand if the holy speaks through gentle rain, it might be overlooked.
It takes a certain sensitivity to absorb the holy through gentle rain.
It’s an incremental access, and nothing as definitive as thunderclaps.
I’d sense the holy in gentle rain, and in the glow of sunset, and in a gentle evening breeze — in the smile of a child. You could say the holy is all around, always, if only we settle into looking and listening and sensing a mist.
“As students return to school in the coming weeks, there will be close attention to their mental health. Many problems will be attributed to the Covid pandemic, but in fact we need to look back further, to 2012. That’s when rates of teenage depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicide began to rise sharply; they nearly doubled. We suspect the same culprit: smartphones.” —NYTimes 31 July, 2021
I don’t usually hark back to earlier posts, but here I can’t resist.My thoughts eight years ago about menace:
Don’t get me wrong! Mine is a knight in shining armor when I need GPS in a strange part of town. And it’s also useful as a phone directory and instrument of communication which, I suppose trends toward utility. Some people think maximizing utility has to do with morality. So what’s my gripe?
This morning on my walk by the Bay I angled up toward the playground. There were two little kids on the swings, and their dad was watching over them. Sort of. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. But he was neglecting his kids.
He was in that familiar pose, head cocked toward the screen. You know the look. But every second he disappeared into his smart phone was a minute he might have been smiling at his kids. Instead he telegraphed quite another, and hurtful message. The screen – someone else, something else – was more important than they were.
Sometimes smart phones block aesthetic reality. At the start of a concert we’re warned to turn them off so they don’t interrupt the music. But before the lights dim and the music begins there can be a magical ambiance I wouldn’t miss for anything: the shuffle towards the few remaining balcony seats; the air rife with anticipation; the stage being given its last set-up adjustments.
If it’s an orchestra, I watch the players strolling to their places and warming up. I wonder mischievously who will have to double-time to get the single remaining chair among the second-violins. Are the kettle drums tuned? To me these moments are sweet, intimate, and not-to-be-missed. If I peer over the balcony and catch a flicker of screens, that’s not immoral (unless it bothers your neighbors trying to soak in the musical scene). But it surely disrupts the subtle aesthetic ambiance.
Sometimes it’s immoral, indecent, to disrupt aesthetic ambiance. Loud music after midnight from across the street is indecent exposure, a flagrant disregard of peace, tranquility, and the softness of dark. Smart phones can’t be censured for loud noise — except for lecture or concert hall beeps.
The more flagrant crimes and misdemeanors occur when I’ve barely been introduced to a stranger in a restaurant line when he cuts me off to answer his phone, with no apology, or when a driver just ahead jambs on his brakes because his phone was distracting his attention.
Surely it’s a double misdemeanor for that pair of girls in their teens just ahead on the sidewalk to be lost in their phones rather than in tune with each other. For girlfriends to walk home from school side by side, without a giggle or gossip, is for each to tell the other that there are so many OTHERS so much MORE important than the would-be pal at their elbow.
Then there’s that restaurant couple across the room in their 60s. To be so unhappily locked out of conversation or eye-contact, in mutual disattention, is surely more than a misdemeanor. They disturb the peace and assault each other with their screams that yes, their marriage is nothing but boredom, on the rocks, despite the fine wine close at hand.
I must say I’m always impressed by Harold Bloom’s erudition, his passion for poetry, his flawless memory of lines from Homer (and earlier) right down to Hart Crane and Wallace Stephens.
His new and last book is weighty (650 pages). It carries a title both hopeful and foreboding: Take Arms Against A Sea of Troubles.
The enemy is named as well as grounds for hope:The Power of the Reader’s mind over a Universe of Death.
But an hour or two into my reading, I found it hard to still believe in “The Power of the Reader’s Mind.”
I was becoming powerless.
I was bothered by an increasingly nagging question:
Where is the line between magnificent, matchless erudition . . . and irritating bombast?
Perhaps I should attribute my sense of bombast to fatigue.
There’s just too much here!
(Or perhaps I’m just not patient enough.)
Every page has quotes that easily crowd out Bloom’s commentary.
The cumulative effect (for me) is not a sense that I’m gaining power over death.
It’s the sense that my mind is being beaten to death — first by an excess of difficult verse, and second, by an excess of rapid, non-stop comparison.
Like a clumsy bartender who overwhelms you with choices (there are craft beers old and new, foreign and domestic, bitter and sweet, by glass and by pitcher) — much more is happening here than the mind can take in.
I’m very happy, more than happy, to hope that poetry has leverage against death.
On a small scale I see how this works. Poetry can lift us over adversity.
But 600 pages of heavy poetry and tiresome comment is not uplifting. It’s dead weight.
What Promise in this Title!
I feel a rush of excitement!
I’m more than happy to buy. I’ve relied over the years on the impressive erudition of Professor Bloom; and I have a native faith in poetry.
But I’m sorry! Here he’s like a professor who assigns a 300 page paper responding to 300 hours of lectures.