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Living Life Well – Recognition and recovery

Living Life Well – Recognition and recovery


By Jim Shere

Donovan’s song “Season of the Witch” came to be one evening at Bert Jansch’s home in north London, when John Renbourn showed Donovan an unsettling D9th chord from which he built a riff he played over and over for the next seven hours. Donovan said, “There was a feeling, even then, that all was not perfect in the Garden of Eden.” I well remember those ominous days, more than half a century ago now; I had a show on KMPX-FM, an underground radio station in San Francisco, and hung out with Jansch and Renbourn among others.

In Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” the king—deformed in body and twisted in mind—is at once the central, pathetic figure, and the villain. He is corrupt, manipulative, sadistic, and would stop at nothing to remain king. The play begins with his soliloquy: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York…” With these words he protested the growing resistance against his rule over England.

There is a hard season that begins with the Winter Solstice in December and ends in early February with the Celtic holiday Imbolc— which we call Groundhog Day, a day when we search for signs that spring can still be possible. But right now, we are here, toward the end of Donovan’s season of the witch, and Richard’s winter of discontent. A terrible infection has spread across our land and within our body politic, which must be recognized. A disease that is not studied cannot be treated, and a cure cannot be found.

A few days before the solstice the last of my brothers died, and a few days later I became ill with the coronavirus. Over the following weeks I learned that grief and convalescence will show us things have changed. And yet, although there can be no recovery of what is now gone, there can be the discovery of what remains possible. Reconciliation does not regain what we once were, it resumes our journey toward who it is that we can be.

This is not to be confused with the notion of the “power of positive thinking”—made fashionable by the American minister Norman Vincent Peale, whose book by that title launched a generation of devotees who thought that a strong and stubborn belief in anything could change the very facts of life. Voltaire’s “Candide” presented a similarly simplistic view, despite the calamities the hero encountered and failed to recognize. Although written two and a half centuries ago, the satire is a must-read today.

Frederick Christ Trump (yes, that’s his full name) brought his son Donald to Peale’s church to learn the fundamentals of positive—some would say magical— thinking. (Later, Peale actually officiated at his first two weddings, but not his third.) Donald went on to develop a rather checkered career as businessman and politician, based upon Peale’s principles. What he did not understand is that personal effort, discipline, and patience are needed, rather than an absolute fidelity to fantasy. God’s generosity may make what we desire possible, at least in our imagination, but God does not simply provide whatever it is that we desire.

Early in my career I helped a woman work through her grief for a son who had died in Jonestown as a victim of Jim Jones’ infamous cult, from which the terrible term “drinking the Kool-Aid” originated. Over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in 1978, when Jones ordered his followers to drink a powdered beverage laced with cyanide. She struggled to understand how the child she had raised could have been caught up in such a dreadfully delusional belief in such a dangerous man. This is how I learned about the fatal attraction of the gullible borderline for the charismatic narcissist.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes borderlines alongside narcissists in the category of personality disorders. They are quite similar, having neither a secure sense of personal integrity—the inner sense of right and wrong—nor a strong sense of self. They depend upon the validation of others to support a frail ego. Like the north and south poles of a powerful magnet, the two are fascinated by one another, and are drawn together. The narcissist needs to lure a fan base into adoration (the word “fan” is short for fanatic), while confused and confounded borderlines need a champion to idealize, idolize, and tell them what to do. Neither one is easily disabused of their beliefs; still, we must know they are here, among us, and we must at least care about them. We’ve been through a very hard time together, you and I; and while the immediate danger may seem over, the damage done remains. Groundhog Day is here, closing the darkest season—and yet spring still lies far ahead. Meanwhile, to live life well involves the work of recuperation from the illnesses of the body, and the body politic. Wellness is not a condition, it is a dynamic, flowing, and far-reaching aspirational attitude, a willingness to believe in possibilities, and a readiness and ability to work and live accordingly.

The events of these past weeks have helped us see and recognize the damage that has been done. It is now time to recover not what we once were, but what it is that we can become.