On Spiritual Exploration, Second Reply (Letter 4/6): The Road
An ongoing letter series with Theresa "Sam" Houghton of The Journey Continues
This is the second reply in a Substack letters series with Theresa “Sam” Houghton of The Journey Continues, part 4 of a 6-part discussion entitled “On Spiritual Exploration”. These letters are all about the journey of finding a life path, how winding that journey might be, and how that path has looked for us spiritually.
You can see part 3, her second letter to me, below:
I loved reading the latest chapter of your journey, especially the resolution of your dark night of the soul through your baptism and embrace of your faith.
Above all, I relate deeply to the moment of discovering the Corinthians quote—the kind of moment that feels like a sudden, irreversible revelation.
This experience of sudden revelation is such a major aspect of what spiritual experience is about for me. They are moments where we see something and can’t unsee it, as if it’s permanently etched in us. Unlike so many of the fleeting, shallow impressions which fill up daily life, these moments stay with us, even define us.
In my last letter, I spoke of how those impressions etched themselves upon my heart. My heart opened this discussion, and ultimately I came to the metaphor of The Kaleidoscope to describe my holistic experience of these impressions of my heart. Taken together, they represent a profound, beautiful whole. But trying to focus on any given piece, or to try to come close to understanding it in its entirety, and it permutes away into thin air.
But the heart isn’t the only source of spiritual experience for me—now the mind has its turn to speak. And the metaphor that immediately felt most appropriate for the mind’s experience of spiritual truth is The Road.
A road always stretches into some further horizon, its terminus unseen, or perhaps eternally deferred, eternally stretching ever further on. So, too, my intellectual understanding of spirituality never comes to a stable, final conclusion, but keeps journeying on further. Every stretch of the road defines the road, an early stretch no less so for having long been traversed and left behind.
So where did this road begin for me?
You may raise an eyebrow at this assertion, Sam, and all you readers who are reading this, but one of the luckiest things that happened to me spiritually from a young age was developing a deep skepticism and mistrust for capitalist modernity. This was the first stretch of asphalt in the long mental and intellectual road of my spirituality.
The thinkers that initially taught me this skepticism and mistrust, such as Karl Marx, are not known for their embrace of religion, of course. But these times make for strange bedfellows, and certainly the most disruptive force for traditional religion has been capitalist modernity. I've come to understand a lot of the dislocating effects of capitalism—disruption of religion and traditional identities, disruption of community and traditional ties, atomization and hyper-individualization—as being consequences of its brute ideological materialism.
This materialism is the ideology that we are all products of merely and purely material reality, governed solely by natural laws, destined only by genes, economic circumstances, and perhaps our Horatio Algers gumption in entrepreneurially transcending those circumstances—instead of by any sense of a calling, a higher purpose, a vocation. The Latin root for vocation is vocare = a vocal speaking-to, a word thick with religious etymology—and a word we no longer hear the original resonance of, taking a vocation to be something more like “something you love” (= a preference) than “something you were meant to do” (= a purpose).
In other words, in capitalism it’s all up to us, and the only measure of success is getting on top, or perhaps more charitably, finding your own personal fulfillment.
When I was a young man, of course, I didn't understand any of the spiritual connection in this. For me, my politics were political and political only. I was the 8th grader who had an underground newspaper and brashly declared myself an "anarcho-socialist" to the libertarian computer lab teacher I would butt heads with on the regular; I was the freshman who read Zinn and Chomsky; I was the sophomore who would argue with anyone I could about the injustices and lies driving the invasion of Iraq; I was the junior who got nicknamed “The Bolshevik”; and of course when in my senior year I got into that university historically synonymous with rambunctious leftism, UC Berkeley, that's where I was destined to go.
And I mention all of this because it perfectly reflects, in my own deeply idiosyncratic way, the highly winding way that meaning and spirituality got bound together for me. For what is one's "life path" but what one decides has paramount meaning, and what one thereby commits oneself to?
For some that commitment is a non-commitment—letting others, or society, make the commitment for you—but it is still, for all that, a commitment. While I haven’t been at the forefront of the erecting of any revolutionary barricades, my youthful politics sowed the seeds for my spiritual commitments today.
The meaning of this politics, even at a young age, went deeper than superficial style and angsty teenage rebelliousness—we aren’t just talking about anarchy symbols and Che Guevara t-shirts (though I admit I wore mine so frequently that it had no fewer than three holes by the time I graduated high school).
I called myself an “anarcho-socialist” because this is part of the teleology of socialist thinking: the first revolutionary transition is to socialism, which builds the necessary institutions that structure society on a more equal footing. The second is anarchism, where those intermediate structures can organically break down and settle into human social life in a way that allows for ideal governance without the coercion of the state.
This teleology is a highly seductive idea—in a way it reconciles the egalitarianism that primarily motivates your typical leftist and the libertarianism that so often opposes it. And to draw the connection to spirituality more directly, this socialist teleology is where I first got in touch with a sense of purpose, destiny, and the fate not just of my own individual self, but of humankind. I got in touch with a fundamental sense of history. This sense of history allowed me to see us working towards something together, not just toiling purely for ourselves, as the capitalist mythos of the invisible hand and homo economicus would have it.
After entering university, however, I quickly became disillusioned with conventional socialist politics. I remember exploring Berkeley’s student clubs in my first few weeks and striking up a conversation with a guy recruiting for the International Socialist Organization (ISO), one of the biggest socialist groups on campus. When I asked him what the main focus of the organization was at the moment, he told me, “Right now we’re fighting a big ideological battle against the Spartacus League.” I later found out the Spartacus League was a Trotskyite socialist group, and the mortal enemies of the Leninist ISO. So, uhhh… ah. Naaaaah.
But this disillusionment was more than compensated for by the ideas I was exposed to over the subsequent four years. Orders of magnitude richer than the economically-focused socialist studies I dabbled with in high school, I encountered the much more philosophical strain of Marx’s early thinking, the structural underpinnings of Hegel’s philosophy of history, and a rich lineage of cultural and sociological critiques from Marx’s Frankfurt School and critical theory heirs.
This vein of thought clued me in to the pernicious depths of capitalism’s effects not just on some abstract and anachronistic “proletariat” but also on the psychological and spiritual health of all we moderns—those of us who feel deeply out of touch with the purpose and meaning of our 9-5 jobs; those of us who find our attentions zapped and sapped by endless bombardments of notifications and advertising and TikTok videos and headlines and the endless stream of endless content; those of us who constantly look in the mirror and wonder if we’re measuring up enough, if we’re “successes”, if we’re not secretly considered a failure by the whole society around us.
And while I was done paling around with penny ante socialist orgs on campus, I retained a deep commitment to the underdog from my socialist roots, a commitment to the downtrodden and the oppressed, as so beautifully expressed by the labor activist and socialist candidate for president Eugene V Debs: “Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth... While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free..." Spirituality, for me, has always involved a deep dimension of human responsibility, and this is where that connection was first drawn for me: I better myself spiritually so I can relieve the suffering and the oppression of others. I am not acting spiritually if I am not ultimately acting for others as much, or much more so, than I am acting for myself.
But university was also so, so much more than Marx and his progeny.
I was exposed to the existentialism and phenomenology of Continental philosophers like Heidegger, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Derrida, which revealed philosophical goldmines that paralleled, cross-pollinated, and deepened my spiritual understanding as a budding Buddhist.
There was the fundamental dwelling in truth and being of Heidegger’s thought (you'll never hear the cliche "be present" the same way again after reading Heidegger) and his commitment to an ever-continuing path of thinking akin to the koans of Zen (“the being of Being is not itself a being”).
There was the amor fati (love of fate) and the refusal to philosophically deny any dimension of the human experience present in Nietzsche (truth, illusion, good, evil…), which I found parallel expression in the Taoist thought of Zhuangzi: "The way, too, is in the piss and the shit".
There was the progressive breakdown in the Cartesian subject-object duality that takes place in Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and subsequent phenomenology, as paralleled in the non-duality of Buddhist thought: “to be is to inter-be”.
And beyond philosophy, there was Rabbi Herschel's beautiful encomium to the Sabbath as a sacred container in time the same way a temple can be in space; the poetry of John Berryman, Frank O'Hara, and Robert Lowell offering me mirrors to my own emotional soul's experience; the deeply pregnant weight of history present in the novels of Thomas Pynchon; the stories and plays of Samuel Beckett, through whom I was first introduced to Zen, Buddhism, and meditation—the list goes on and on.
And finally, finally, I'd be remiss not to briefly mention the book most deeply and alarmingly lodged in my political-spiritual consciousness: Hannah Arendt's On The Origins of Totalitarianism.
I wonder if everyone has a book or a thought that has scared and disturbed them the most, a book they continue to think about for years or decades afterwards. This is definitely mine.
Arendt charts the course of the development of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia with the unsettling conclusion that, more than anything else, the prerequisite for the rise of these horrifying, nihilistic regimes is loneliness, isolation, and alienation.
The same sort of loneliness, isolation, and alienation that is possible in any modern society whose traditional structures of community—religious, civic, familial, local—have broken down and continue to get broken down in the churn of individuation and atomization.
The same sort of loneliness, isolation, and alienation that just led the Surgeon General of the United States to declare a “loneliness epidemic”.
I still feel the same sinking feeling in my gut that I felt when I first read Arendt—it hasn’t gone away. It might sound odd to call the feeling “spiritual”, but I consider it so—this feeling is, in fact, a deep part of my spiritual path. It forces me to focus on something that isn’t easy to focus on.
The loneliness epidemic is not something easy to talk about in polite company or leisurely conversations, nor is it a fashionable opinion to cite loneliness as the reason for the rise of Trumpism and general extremism in America.
It’s far easier to broad brush vilify the other side with labels like “racist” or “misogynist” instead of considering how folks in dying rural communities might be searching for someone, anyone who appears to identify with them—and all the better if he rankles those who seem to be sitting pretty in their coastal cultural bastions.
And I actually understand the liberal urge to simply treat the current threats of extremism as a pure product of bigotry and ignorance—I can’t pass judgment on my own side either. But I feel I am personally forced to keep grappling with this feeling of danger I learned from Arendt in my own soul, because someone has to have their eyes on the deeper, longer-term threat than that presented by a schmuck like Trump.
How bad things could get ten or twenty or thirty years from now, we have no way of knowing right now. But Arendt makes it absolutely clear that we’re neglecting the deepest, simplest root cause that provides the ground for that future evil: loneliness, isolation, alienation.
Our putatively “social” media has only deepened that sense of alienation, pushing us ever further into our phones, hooking us ever more into following the lives of people we’ll never meet on TikTok and Instagram, instead of orienting ourselves to the world around us, to the communities that need rebuilding, reimagining, revitalization.
But after all this, after graduating university, all this glorious academic basking in the resplendence of deep thought came to an end.
You’ll remember I described the challenging nature of my heart’s kaleidoscopic web of spiritual impressions in my last letter, Sam. The heart, through this kaleidoscope, found itself unable to make full, coherent, complete sense of this spiritual experience and chart the path forward.
Well, this present moment of the story represents a similar challenge point in the mind’s story. When I left the confines of educational life and entered "the real world", it became much harder to see where any of this beautiful thinking and learning applied—much less how I could make a living off of it. I had been on The Road of spiritual and philosophical thought, but it just kept going—and at a certain point, I had to get off. I couldn’t just be on The Road forever, could I?
I did for a time, truly feel like I was “on the path of thinking,” in Heideggerian parlance—a path that’s never completed, never comes to neatly packaged answers, much as in the road of my metaphor.
However, I soon realized this path of thinking was no clear path to living—not in this reality, not in this society, not if I didn’t want to be constantly square-pegging my thinking into round holes for the sake of the measly pittance of academic jobs that are available to humanities PhDs out there, much less philosophy ones.
The Road might keep stretching on into the future, and I could keep on it indefinitely. But its path was already paved. There was nothing new to do, nothing new to create. I had escaped from the constraining teleology of orthodox Marxism, but even if I had found a stable academic career, the path of thinking for thinking’s sake would have kept me away from the world, away from action, away from my mind’s reckoning with my heart’s spiritual experience.
No, academic life was not the path forward. But, damn if something in me didn’t feel killed off as I embarked on the next chapter. And how I was to regain some sense of contact with my path—well, it took me nearly ten years before I figured that out.
And we’ll have to pick that up in the next letter, because as it turns out that required me to bring my heart back in. The dialectic of the heart and the mind is where I found, and continue to find, the path forward.
But I did come away from my journey on The Road with an enduring sense of clarity. My mind’s ultimate spiritual recognition, its absolute conviction, over the course of this journey, was this: there is a destiny, not just for each of us as individuals, but also for humankind as a whole.
We share a monumentally decisive path and we decide that path in concert—it is simultaneously our given destiny and entirely decided by our own dedication and responsibility.
It may not look like the socialist promised land I envisioned as a youth (and I have certainly grown disillusioned with the dogmatism of thinking I or anyone else knows precisely what it will look like) but I also know it looks like something beyond endless new Netflix series and endless new Twitter controversies—and a fortiori something other than the ecological destruction of our given planet or the descent of our politics into annihilatory extremism.
History is not over, history continues, even if we want to cover our eyes and plug our ears to it. History, for me, is itself a spiritual force that requires its own faith, its own dedication, its own community of actors who will commit themselves to its call, its demands, and what it asks of us. It might be God, it might overlap with God, it might be some dimension of God. All I know is that it is the transcendent force that has most directly and most consistently put me, personally, in touch with transcendence.
And I suppose that’s why the universe’s most meaningful whispers to me seem to me so rare—history, too, is fundamentally parsimonious. Moments that are truly decisive are rare, but once they happen, they can’t un-happen. They are events.
This is what I finally started to grapple with, as my mind and my heart got into conversation: what does it mean to experience an event in your own personal history? What does it mean to try to act to bring about those events?
What does it mean to really change? To change is to be historical. To change is to write the history of yourself.
(Doc, my sixth grade history teacher, drew coins hovering over a clock on the blackboard: “History is change over time”).
The cliche phase: “Be the change you want to see in the world”—well, to do that, you have to start by changing yourself.
Only by learning what it looks like to change yourself, can you learn what it looks like to change the world.
We are all the stuff of history. Our individual histories are constituted of key events. And for us, Sam, events are like those moments you had with the Corinthians letter, the moment of being baptized by Pastor Coonradt.
Those experiences of revelation are moments of personal history. From that point on, you began to be a different person, as your letter beautifully conveyed.
How that history has unfolded for you since that event, I am very eager to hear—how much was involved in living a Christian life, how much did things really start to change?
And I, for my part, will conclude this series with the story of the history that follows from here, a story that takes both the heart and the mind to tell, that took both the heart and mind to experience, struggle through, overcome, and finally, now, tell the story of.
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Images created by Midjourney.