Avicii And The Myth Of Sisyphus

Such sad news breaking today – Swedish DJ and musician, Avicii (Tim Bergling) has died.  His music was unique and had an existentialist flavour to it; he dealt with themes of meaning in work/life, relationships and self-worth.

‘Levels’, released in 2013, was a good example of this. In the video you see a reference to ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ as popularised by French absurdist/existentialist philosopher and author, Albert Camus.

Sisyphus was condemned to an eternity of hard, repetitive and frustrating labour.  His assignment was to roll an enormous boulder up a hill; each time he seemingly achieved his goal, after much exertion and application, the boulder rolled back down to the bottom of the hill again. And so the story unfolds with monotonous repetitiveness into eternity.

Avicii’s ‘Levels’ explores the meaning of work and the deadening weight of a repetitive existence. But like Sisyphus, there is more than just a modicum of hope in the story. Avicci’s character breaks out of that monotony and issues a wake-up call to colleagues and others he makes contact with; Sisyphus also, eventually finds meaning in his task.

Such is the reality of our existence; the search for meaning and purpose is an essential part of being human; it manifests itself both consciously and unconsciously.  It is possible to find meaning in any moment, even in the midst of dullness. It is also possible, in-as-much as we are free from external constraints, to do something different – to seek a change in direction.

As Viktor Frankl once famously wrote: ‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’. It seems that understanding this quest was important to Tim Bergling too.

Thomas Merton: The Core Of Our Reality

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Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . .

Thomas Merton

Bonhoeffer: The Transcendent Church At Easter

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Cliftonville Moravian Church (Photo by John Cooper)

“[Believers] do not believe in people or in the good in people that ultimately must triumph; they also do not believe in the church in its human power. Rather, believers believe solely in God, who creates and does the impossible, who creates life out of death, who has called the dying church to life against and in spite of us and through us. But God does it alone.”

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter

World Bipolar Day: Living Beyond Limitations

Today, on World Bipolar Day, I’m reminded of the words of Carl Jung: ‘The one who learns to live with his incapacity has learned a great deal’. 

World Bipoar Day

We all live with incapacity to some degree, not just those who live with a Bipolar diagnosis. Adapting to it, and finding meaning and self-transcendence in it, and through it, makes an enormous difference.

I know many people, who use the insight gained through living with a particular illness, to help others in comparable situations. They turn their incapacity into an advantage (and of course to the advantage of others). In that respect they are unique and are fulfilling a task no-one else can in quite the same way.

As Paul the Apostle wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:27: But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong’. An apt reminder of the purpose inherent in living with a life-limiting, but also life affirming condition, such as Bipolar Disorder.

Weapons Of Mass Destruction: Christianity & A Call to Action.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently announced that they have moved the Doomsday Clock ahead 30 Seconds, to 2 minutes to midnight (the symbolic point of global annihilation); this is the closest to midnight recorded since 1953, the height of the Cold War.

At the Doomsday Clock announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in January 2017, it was stated that: ‘North Korea’s nuclear weapons program appeared to make remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks for itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation …. ‘. Added to that Vladimir Putin’s recent ‘state of the nation’ address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, where he raised the issue of potential additions to the country’s already enormous strategic nuclear arsenal.

The Christian response to the issue of nuclear weapons and the potential for a nuclear exchange, deliberate or by error, has not been uniform in its scope. Some would argue for the deterrence value of maintaining a nuclear arsenal as the ultimate guarantor of peace; others would take a radically different view and claim that possession of weapons of mass destruction, never mind their use, is morally indefensible.  For example, Christian CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) advocates on behalf of Christians ‘who want to witness on the basis of their faith against nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, while also positively campaigning for peace’. This statement, together with other information on their stance is available at: http://christiancnd.org.uk. Christian CND have produced a helpful summary of the various statements on nuclear weapons from UK churches: Church-statements-poster.

Consider also what Thomas Merton, the Cistercian Monk, Writer and Peace Activist wrote in is article entitled ‘Nuclear War and Christian Responsibility’ published in the Feb. 6, 1962 issue of Commonweal (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/nuclear-war-and-christian-responsibility):

‘In atomic war, there is no longer question of simply permitting an evil, the destruction of a few civilian dwellings, in order to attain a legitimate end: the destruction of a military target. It is well understood on both sides that atomic war is purely and simply massive and indiscriminate destruction of targets chosen not for their military significance alone, but for their importance in a calculated project of terror and annihilation. Often the selection of the target is determined by some quite secondary and accidental circumstance that has not the remotest reference to morality. Hiroshima was selected for atomic attack, among other reasons, because it had never undergone any noticeable air bombing and was suitable, as an intact target, to give a good idea of the effectiveness of the bomb’.

Each one of us – Christian and non-Christian – is called to reflect on our position with respect to nuclear weapons; the stakes could not be any higher – it is after all undeniable that they pose an existential threat like no other. So, I want to leave you with a very sobering TEDtalk by atmospheric scientist Brian Toon; he explains how even a small nuclear exchange could destroy all life on earth and suggests ways that we can prevent such a horrific scenario coming to fruition:

From Power To Peace

This quote and insight from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr still resonates today with the threat of a new arms race on the horizon:

“Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a ‘peace race.’ If we have the will and determination to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.”

Thomas Merton: The Transforming Nature of Reality

Thanks to a friend I was reminded that it is 60 years and 1 day since Thomas Merton’s ‘epiphany’ moment in Louisville. Kentucky, when he recognised that our being is deeply rooted in God and each other.  Contemplation and revelation is not confined to the monastery and a select few; it is a calling from God that is open to each and every one of us, even, and perhaps especially, amidst the noise and chaos of life.  You can read the relevant passage from ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ below, or you can listen to me reading it here:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

 

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

 

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

‘When I Needed A Neighbour?’

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It often strikes me just how convoluted we make our Christian faith appear, when in reality, at its core, it is relatively straightforward. Granted, the Disciples often misunderstood Jesus and struggled with the countercultural essence of his narrative; and so do we. But in essence, Jesus’ message was clear, especially when we consider the pragmatism of his ethical teachings.  His exhortations to reach out to the marginalised, to love the unlovely and to respect the dignity of the person, were profound. There are many examples in the Gospels where Jesus talks, in strident terms, of the neighbourliness imperative and the demands placed upon us; to embrace the stranger in our midst and to disaffirm restrictive tribal affiliations.

One such example of this is found in Matthew 25:44-45 –

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

And then there are the lyrics of the hymn ‘When I Needed a Neighbour’, sung by so many over the years, the first verse of which is reproduced here:

When I needed a neighbour,
Were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour, were you there?
And the creed and the colour
And the name won’t matter,
Were you there?

Each hour, day, week and lifetime we all experience the situations and circumstances where we can be proactive neighbours. Moreover, how we engage and who we engage with is a very personal task; we all have unique skills that are there to be utilised in the service of others.

I think Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, captured the essence of that uniqueness when he wrote:

 “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

A Broad & Humble Mind

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One of the most frustrating facets of ‘Cultural Christianity’, where there is a remnant of belief and a minimal adherence at best, is that it often leads people to become intellectually incurious.  In such an environment doctrines and dogmas go unchallenged, and key tenets of the faith are accepted without question and go unexamined.

I have some sympathy with the Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s assertion that: “There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity.”

Encouraging at every opportunity, and from an early age, the exercise of critical faculties, is essential in all domains. Socrates was right when he said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” 

A faith that is alive with adventure and ongoing exploration is far more fulfilling than a dry and anaemic cultural affiliation. A questioning faith, but not a disputatious one, can lead to a much broader understanding of, and encounter with, the living God of Christianity.

The very best bible studies I have attended have been ones in which there were a broad range of people in attendance, with a myriad of ideas and a desire to learn; I have left such encounters with new insights and, perhaps more importantly, an awareness of what I do not know.

Of course many people will say that a singularly intellectual exploration is not a journey they wish to undertake. I understand that point. There is a very real danger of over intellectualisation, where people feel marginalised, the heart of the Gospel message is missed and elitism becomes the norm. The atmosphere this creates is the antithesis of the one envisaged by the reformers.

Therefore a balance needs to be struck, where we examine and explore, but remain mindful of the fact that, despite questioning, there is a limit to what we can comprehend. Such humility is necessary. Consider as an example Proverbs 3:5 – ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,‘ and Romans 12:2 – ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will’.

I’ll finish with some words of wisdom from Colman, a nephew of St. Columba, who wrote in the ‘Alphabet of Devotion’: ‘What is best for the mind? Breadth and humility, for every good thing finds room in a broad, humble mind. What is worst for the mind? Narrowness and closedness, and constrictedness, for nothing good finds room in a narrow, closed, restricted mind’. 

I like that.