Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Togetherness and Difference

Two things have constantly pulled at cross-purposes in me: one, a deep homing instinct, a desire beyond words to be at home always, with the same beloved faces, the same familiar shapes and sounds about me; the other, an impulse to seek hard things to do, to go on far quests and fight for lost causes. -- Patrick Pearse

Pearse's words came to me this morning, at Mass, as I looked at the familiar faces in the communion line, and as I found myself thinking of two conflicting-- or apparently conflicting-- emotions in my own heart. I will try to describe them in turn.

I am always (or often) struck by the intense sense of togetherness during Holy Communion-- a togetherness in which differences seem to be, not obliterated, but transcended. "Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."

And I found myself thinking of the intense longing for togetherness that exists (I believe) in all people. It may seem a banal reference, but the film that always comes to mind when I ponder this topic is The Breakfast Club. Even though this is a fairly cheesy teen drama, I don't think I've ever seen a film that is more cathartic as an experience-- because it is an extremely accomplished example of that timeless dramatic theme, the theme of a group people, who seem utterly different, finding that they have far more in common than they ever suspected. In the movie, in case you don't know, a nerd, an athlete, a punk, an eccentric and a glamour girl spend a Saturday in school detention. Probably every viewer identifies with one or the other-- I always identified with the nerd. But, by the final scenes, you identify with every one of them, and the final freeze frame-- where the punk character, who initially seemed utterly detestable, punches his fist in the air as he walks away from the school- expresses the viewer's own sense of euphoria.

Surely everybody has had the same experience, when they have had a long conversation with someone they didn't know very well, or even someone who they positively disliked, and come away amazed at how much affinity, how much common human feeling, is still possible between them. Very often, we only realize that we only disliked the person because we suspected he or she disliked us. Whenever I've had this experience, the sense of emotional release is always intoxicating.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, suggested that tragedy (the dramatic genre) moves us as it does because, through the emotion of pity and fellow-feeling, it releases us for a moment from the prison of individuality and plunges us into the sea of common humanity-- as he put it, it rips away "the veil of Maya". (A Hindu term. As far as I understand, it means the illusion that holds us back from union with the Absolute).

So I feel, as I believe everybody feels, this deep yearning for communion with others-- but, like Patrick Pearse, I am constantly aware of another emotion that seems in complete opposition to this one. That is an exultation in diversity and difference, and a protectiveness towards diversity and difference, and an anxiety that diversity and difference will be eroded. I cherish to an extreme degree the difference betweeen the sexes, and the difference between national cultures, and the difference between youth and age, and different occupations, and different ways of life, and (almost) every other sort of difference.

But the funny thing is...although these two emotions seem in contradiction, I feel a strong faith that they are not. I feel a strong faith that there is a true universalism which is deeper and more meaningful than the shallow kind of universalism, the sort that wants to do away with all ethnic loyalties and gender differences other and social distinctions.

It seems to me that this harmony between the particular and the universal is one of the things that story-telling and other forms of art try to achieve, consciously or unconsciously. The Breakfast Club is only one of many, many examples.

And, in turn, one of the sources of my religious faith is the perception that life has depths such as these. There is simply too much 'going on' in the human condition for me not to believe that there is a deep artistry in evidence there.

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