One way we find out something about who we are and who we might become is to notice who and what we admire. What characters in books or films do we identify with, which people attract as friends or lovers, which artists catch our attention, which teachers did we love? Which music do we find beautiful, which poems speak to our condition, which art pleases our eye? The road to the truth about who we’re meant to be is filled with folks who beckon us forward, some directly with a wave of the hand, some who might never know we’re following them up the path, but represent something we care about, something we need, something we aspire to. Our universe is peopled with heroes, mentors, role models, guides, a community that we build slowly over time and eventually inhabit as our rightful home. We choose the ground to stand on that helps us know what we stand for.
But there is a second road to the center of our character and that is noticing all the people who repel us, who we find distasteful, unpleasant, maddening, outrageous and sometimes downright evil. From the ogres and demons of the fairy tales to the teacher who didn’t understand us to the friends who betrayed us to the lovers who jilted us to the artists whose work feels ugly, we learn something about who we are by who we don’t want to be. We project evil out to the people we can’t stand and sometimes discover that it is the parallel qualities in ourselves that we are reacting to. That’s a hard lesson.
We all carry our list of what’s wrong with the world and our ideas about who the bad guys are. That’s natural, normal, universal. What’s dangerous is when we take it literally, dismiss and lash out at the people rather than the behavior and the values they are carrying. Of course, it’s an easy mistake to make when those people are in your face, treating you shabbily, threatening your well-being, judging you unfairly and even more so if they rise to positions of power to cause yet more harm and wreak havoc to everything that you hold dear.
The third debate just ended and thank goodness it’s over. I am so tired of reacting to this dangerous, narrow-minded, small-hearted man who has dominated the national mood for over a year. I will happily pray for his soul after he loses the election, but will continue to oppose him with everything I have—humor, speech, music and of course, my vote—for the next three weeks. Someday we all might thank him for revealing all the undigested hatred and bigotry and grief in this country, for helping every citizen willing to reflect about the actual principles of a democratic nation discover what we should never become through the back door of seeing clearly how low we fell when we cheered him on or excused him.
Again, the Via Negativa is a viable path to self-discovery. But I, for one, am ready to resume a constructive, pro-active life more centered on what I stand for than what I stand against. The two do live side-by-side in me—the first helps temper the second and the second helps clarify and articulate the first. But there is a certain balance that makes for a proper proportion and the constant reactivity to the next outlandish statement is wearing me down. It’s wearing us all down. Three more weeks of waiting to exhale. May we come to our senses!