The Edge of the Real: Our Fragmented World
The Edge of the Real: The Call of Desire

The Edge of the Real: Fragmented Boundaries

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 To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go. To right the unrightable wrong, to love pure and chaste from afar, to try when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star. This is my quest, to follow that star - no matter how hopeless, no matter how far. To fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause. And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest that my heart will be peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest. And the world will be better for this, that one man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage. To reach the unreachable star.

The Impossible Dream - Mike Leigh

Man of La Mancha

Mike Leigh's classic song tells a story of a man who late in life has found a calling. The quest unites all parts of him, transforms him into someone new, different, alive. The man becomes a character in his own life's play. He is now Don Quixote del La Mancha, knight errant. From this new sense of identity, the man bridges the gap, crosses the boundaries that once confined him in a fragmented existence of doubt. No longer. He is now on a mission that gives him life to the end.

The question the play raises is whether Don Quixote is a man who is a fool or a man who is more alive that all the rest of us. The answer is left to the audience, for in the end, it is this question that defines us. Who are we? Are we the fragmented soul, torn between the competing demands and defining expectations of others? Or, are we whole, a complete person, alive and flourishing along our own self-identified path of life?

Fragmented Boundaries

The boundary between our inner selves and the outer world is where we can see the fragmentation of our lives. It is here, along these fragmented boundaries, that wholeness can be discovered.

A fragmented life is a divided existence between the random, arbitrary moments of change in the external world, and the feelings of purpose and confusion within us. The external world cannot provide a kind of static, secure continuity for life. Our outer life exists in time, a context that is always changing. Moments following moments, some repeating what has gone before, others, random, new and incomplete. Yet, it is that unchanging experience of continuity and wholeness that many of us seek. We desire meaning, connection and a way to see that our lives count.

With wholeness, the gap that exists between our inner and outer lives is bridged. Not just bridged, but rather melded together so that there is little distinction between these two aspects of our lives. We discover a continuity of movement in time that has a logic often missed in the fascination of The Spectacle of the Real. Continuity is created through the intentional, and adaptive, choices that we make that find tangible expression in the outer world. It could be said that ...

I am who I am, always have been, always will be. Though I live in the external world, I am who I am, in an always changing interaction between this person who I am and the world in which I live. Therefore, I am always becoming the person who I am right now.

Our inner self is sometimes like an idea and other times a feeling, like a vapor, here one moment, then gone. To understand how this connection functions, we must begin to act consciously, with intention and discernment in the midst of time and change.

Here's an example of what I mean.

It is a familiar story. A wife and mother faithful to her husband and family over many years of marriage discovers that her husband is having an affair with her sister. This is a double blow of disloyalty to the heart of her and to her family.

How is she to respond to her husband, to her sister, to her children, to her parents and their friends, and, most importantly, to herself?

Is her loyalty to her husband a part of who she is in her inner being, or is it an acquired conventional social behavior?

What about the disloyalty of her sister?  How should she respond to her? Can she forgive her?

What of her husband? Is there hope for reconciliation with him?

Ultimately, she must come to understand how to feel about who she is as a person, a human being, a woman, wife, sister and mother? Is she less of a person because of their betrayal and her embarrassment? Or, is she a person defined by an inner core of truth; her own inner sense of well-being that is the foundation of her life?

At a point of crisis, who we are, and how we define ourselves is not measured by our response to the offending party, or the situation, but, rather, in our response to ourselves. Is she the same person now as she was before she learned of her husband's and sister's betrayal? Or has this now historic and defining event in her life, changed her. Is her own response to their disloyalty, quite possibly making her a stronger, wiser person?

The Wholeness Relationship

Wholeness is not merely a philosophical ideal, nor, a commercial marketing gimmick. It is an integral, interactive relationship between three parts of our lives, our Body, Mind and Spirit.  To be a whole person is to discover an integrity by our acting upon the ideas, desires and perceptions that constituted our sense of who we are. 

To understand how to move towards wholeness we must look deeply at the fragmented condition of our inner selves. To see ourselves as fragmented persons living in a fragmented world is to understand the fundamental relationship between our mind, body and spirit.

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In this picture, the Mind, the Body and the Spirit serve as way to define the functional aspects of our inner selves. Here's how I see each.

The Mind

We experience fragmentation when the Mind is isolated into a closed hyper-rationalism (for example) that submits all experience to a rational explanation. Cogito ergo Sum, I think therefore I am. I am my thoughts first and foremost, everything else is subordinate.

The weakness of the mind in isolation can be seen in the inadequacy of a rational answer to the simple question between two lovers. "Why do you love me?". There may be a logical answer to the question, but is it an answer that satisfies the one loved, who asked the question?

This is a picture of the boundedness that Charles Taylor writes about in A Secular Age.

"I started off explicating this understanding with the notion of mind. Thoughts, etc., occur in minds; minds are (grosso modo) only human; and they are bounded; they are inward spaces.

... What am I gesturing at with the expression of "thoughts, etc."? I mean, of course, the perceptions we have, as well as the beliefs or propositions which we hold or entertain about the world and ourselves. But I also mean our responses, the significance, importance, meaning, we find in things."

I see the mind as the culminating point of a process of discovery. The mind provides a point of clarity where many notions, impulses, sensory signals come together into a relatively clear, always unfolding perspective. The result is an understanding of the world around us. It is what we finally call our perspective. When we become too bounded, too locked into our minds, too closed or detached from our physical experience that comes through our bodies, then our mind's capacity to perceive the outside world clearly is inhibited.

The limitation or boundedness of the mind can also be seen in how often we find we do not have the words to express the deep feeling of love that we have for a person. We stammer, shift on our feet, look away, and finally, say, "I don't know, I just do!?" Life is more than words. This is especially realized in our relationships with those whom we are the closest.

The Mind is a powerful tool for organizing all the information that we receive, giving it order, providing perspective, and helping us understand what we are to do. But it does not do this alone. When it is united with our Body's experience in the world, along with our Spirit's desire for life which is good and full, then the Mind's contribution elevates it all, and the Mind, sort of disappears while it flourishes in making sense of life at this moment.

The Body

Our body isn't just a containment vessel for our mind. It is a sensory collection and distribution device for engaging in a meaningful connection to the world. Our sensory lives come through our five senses - taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. Each sense contributes to our understanding of where we are. A perfume counter in Paris smells, looks and sounds different than the tastes, colors and sounds of the market place in Murree. We take sensory data in, which give us clues as to where we are, and how we are to respond to our surroundings.

Isolate one sense above them all, and perspective is lost. When we taste something that is incredibly sour; our eyes fold into our heads; our mouths squeeze the source of sourness to close off our taste buds; whatever we hear vanishes; and we lose touch with our surroundings

Permanently lose a sense, and the others compensate. Our senses, through our brain chemistry, function as a magnificent system of engagement with the world. Together, they provide us a physical connection to the outer world that helps us make sense of where we are, and who we are in that context.

Friends of mine who have lived with addiction of some type, tell me that when they were using or consuming the object of their obsession, that their body was full of sensation. For many they did it to feel, or, to not-to-feel, or to feel alive, to be free of the constraints and pains that their minds could not resolve.

A life lived just through intense sensory experience ceases to be our lives. It is a fragment of our life. Instead, it is more like a machine running at full force. Kachunka, kachunka, kachunka, kachunka, kachunka ... until some part fails, and the machine broken, stops. The machine of our senses is doing what it is suppose to do, transfer sensory data to the brain and back to the body. The Mind-Body system is a glorified human reinforcing feedback loop. When healthy and whole, we are in touch with ourselves and the situations we are in. We know how to respond. We are, what many people call, present

When out of balance, through the isolation of our mind, or, over stimulation of our senses of taste, smell, hearing, sight or touch, we lose the connection between our inner and outer lives. The boundary between them becomes a gap that must be bridged. 

This is what I see in the hyper-real world of The Spectacle of the Real. Images, sounds and snippets of thought without context (sound bites) rush at us through the screen filling our mind with sensory data. Our mind adapts to the sensory overload, processes it, and makes sense of it.

Yet, when our senses are disembodied, through the sensory experience of the screen, our engagement with the outer world is partial, incomplete, and lacking in a context. Our five senses cannot integrate us into the story that is presented to us.  We are left looking at a world that is detached and isolated from us, as if we are only partially alive.

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Take for example this picture. It is obviously a picture of the ocean, taken at the beach. But, which ocean, what beach, what time of day, dawn or sunset? To see a picture of the ocean with a beach scene is not the same as standing on the beach seeing the ocean. The picture is a vicarious, suggestive experience. It is a substitute experience that touches our mind's imagination. It still has value for we can still see beauty in a picture without being present.

It is still a partial, incomplete experience. Here our sense of sight is isolated from the smell of the ocean; the feel of wet sand between our toes; the wind blowing through our hair; the taste of saltiness from the water; and, the sound of the waves coming ashore. To be present is to have a complete experience of the relation between the ocean and the beach. The picture is suggestive of what could be. It is a substitute for the real thing.

When our bodily experience is separated from our mind's rational understanding, we find ourselves living in a random, sometimes chaotic series of sensory experiences that must be repeated for the experience to be retained. The screen is an addictive vehicle for sensory overload that gives us a life that is ephemeral and transitory.

This experience is unique to the modern world. Prior to the filtering of sensory data through electrical technology, first with the radio, the electric light, the kinetoscope, and the telephone, then later through television and the computer screen, our sensory experience was an embodied one, rather than a mental one. To see the beach, you had to go to the beach. To hear a symphony, you had to go to a concert hall. These embodied experiences provided a complete sensory context for understanding. Today, less so.

An event, which is mostly engaged through images on a screen, takes on a fragmented character. The television coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings was just this way. Here's my description of the news coverage from The Spectacle of the Real.

The Boston Marathon bombings were watched by millions on television and discussed all across social media platforms and online communities. The event, though, was mostly absorbed through pictures. The bomb at the finish line exploding over and over again. The pictures of the injured and maimed being wheeled away to rescue workers and hospitals. The faces of the two brothers as they became known as the bombers. Facts were few in number; reporting rich in conjecture, and all born through images that touched our emotions.

We are moved by the images. Their repeated presentation envelopes us in a story, a partial story, without context or human connection. Is it our story? No. Whose story is it? Is it the victims story? The bombers story? Not really. It is the story through which the producers and reporters draw our eyes and ears to the screen, transfixed by the spectacle unfolding before us. 

When the Body is isolated, either in over-stimulation of our senses, or in our physical absence from the context that engages our imagination, we experience the broken nature of modern life.

In the past, wholeness was limited to the social and physical space a person inhabited. I still remember my grandfather telling me how his world changed as a child when he first heard a radio, and realized that there were people who lived elsewhere.

Today, to be whole, we must see that our lives are fragmented by design. We live in a time growing global awareness, yet we are detached from the reality that people in other places that we see on the screen experience. We can travel to foreign lands, spend a week engaged in some kind of social benefit activity, be with people who are culturally very different than us, then, return home with a feeling that we understand a whole new culture.

What we do not realize is that to understand another culture, we first must understand our own. I'm convinced that most of the people I know do not understand their own life setting. They live in it uncritically, in a numbed state of confusion, and tend to blend into whatever is trending that day.

We are daily immersed in a fragmented culture that detaches our inner selves from the outer world. It is difficult to pinpoint just how fragmented we are, because their is no real context for doing so. Bridging this fragmented gap in our lives requires that we be more than just being physically and mentally present. Wholeness requires a deeper part of our human self to be engaged. 

The Spirit

Herman Dooyeweerd, a 20th. century Dutch philosopher / theologian identified the "core of human existence" as the heart, the spiritual center of a person. It is not the physical heart, but rather a metaphorical heart. That intangible, mysterious part of us that beats to a certain passionate rhythm that is individually ours. Here, I'm identifying this Spirit as our human spirit, seen from my own experience and observation of others. This spiritual center is that place where passion and purpose emerge to bridge the mind / body divide. Each of us, everyone of us I am convinced, has a purpose, or, as many refer to it, a calling. There is some core part of our being that provides the ground for bridging the inner and outer parts of our selves. It is this that I see as our human spirit.

As I have sought to find ways to explain this core aspect of our human lives, I keep returning to experience of human love. How do two lovers know that the other loves them? When we speak of the chemistry between people, when that chemistry is filled with euphoria, ecstasy and, often, deep erotic desire, we are not simply speaking of some logical abstraction of the mind, or, some overwhelming sensory feeling or, just the function of our brain chemistry. We are identifying something much deeper within us. Something that is inscrutable, without the kind of boundaries that enable us to objectify the phenomenon. It is something that is whole, deeply personal, that grows and emerges as we nourish it.

This feeling is not simply sensory, which lasts only while it is stimulated. It is also not simply an idea, a objective proposition defining one's intellectual understanding of love. Rather, this spiritual core is something other. It is that thing that wakes you in the night with vivid scenarios of beauty or horror. It is something so deep within us that we cannot grasp it as a whole. Instead, it grasps us, swallows us whole in its significance.

When this spiritual presence is missing, there is a sense of emptiness, alienation, and ennui. It is this aspect of our fragmented selves that poets, philosophers, psychologists and theologians have pointed to as the mark of the modern age upon human life. This is why zombies seen to be a fitting image for the lives of many people today. The walking dead fragemented, broken, half alive, unable to love, share or see other human beings except as sources of their own ravenous need to consume.

Our human spiritual core is at the same time the heart of our lives and the most mysterious and untouchable. For our Spirit to flourish, to bring us to wholeness,  requires action. We must to do something as it passionately calls us into action. This is what love is, and love is at the core of our spiritual being. Without love, we are dead, simply human thinking, sensory generating machines, which are fragmented and broken. When love emerges within us, whether for a person or a cause, it is then that we begin to see how we are to live in the outer world.

In my next post, I look into what I've identified as three desires that drive our human spirit. By moving towards these desires, we begin a path towards wholeness that carries across that threshold which is The Edge of the Real.

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