Against Wholeness

I’m about to let my membership in the Church of Human Wholeness lapse. It’s not that I can’t afford the tithe anymore (there isn’t any). Nor that the people there aren’t nice (everyone I know striving for wholeness tries unceasingly to be as kind as they can be).

It’s just that the effort is based on a model and goal that are not only unattainable in this fractured existence we encounter, but, in my mind, not particularly desirable. Too many treasures abide in the roiling waters just below the surface of our everyday social selves—nuggets of contemplation, tensions leading to inspiration, interpersonal imbroglios leading to insight.

So I’ve had enough of wholeness. I’m giving it up. And I couldn’t be happier.

Let’s face it: human beings are a mess. A glorious, endearing, mystifying, contradictory, staggeringly complex, often-edifying-but-also-aggravating mess, but a mess nevertheless. Pretty much the entire fiction industry is built on this mess, as is the self-help industry and no doubt the liquor and pharmaceutical industries as well. The difference is that the latter three industries make their billions promoting the factually challenged assertion that the mess is fixable—just one more seminar or pill or exquisitely crafted cocktail away—while the fiction industry stares the mess in the face and proclaims it worthy of exploration, but rarely amelioration.

Novelists approach the mess that we are from different perspectives, to be sure. Marilynne Robinson brings her firmly rooted liberal Christian charity into play in surveying the mess with a certain tenderness and her tradition’s moral imperative for forgiveness. She cradles her characters in her arms, offering them a hard-won redemption not because they become perfect and whole, but precisely because they do not. Unblinkingly examining that unwholeness and exposing it to the light is her way of conferring grace—the novelist as God of her own domain.

Contrast that with Phillip Roth, who, for all his humor, often leaves his tortured characters (and thus his readers) in a darkened alley with a prominent “No Exit” sign blinking from both ends. Rather than redemption, Roth offers grim barking laughter and mere glimmers, at best, of insight into this morally confusing, ethically unmoored post-modern world, which comes with its own dark exhilaration for those willing to take a plunge. “For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence,” muses his uber-lecherous protagonist, Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater.

The late archetypal psychologist James Hillman knocked me off my feet (metaphorically only) many years ago with his classic Re-Visioning Psychology. Pursuing his singular marriage of neo-Jungian psychology and literary flair, Hillman explored—with a kind of driven, high-octane writing style impeccably suited to his subject matter— the mythical, often chaotic underpinnings of human consciousness. Writing about him after his death, Thomas Moore observed:

“He advocated a view of the person as made up of multiple, dynamic forces that should be kept in tension rather than ‘integrated’ into some sentimental notion of wholeness.”

Peeking out from his subterranean (and joyous) mucking about in the depths of the human psyche, Hillman wrote:

“We owe our symptoms an immense debt. The soul can exist without its therapists but not without its afflictions.”

The late novelist John Updike echoed this in his 1967 Paris Review interview:

 “A satisfied person, a content person, ceases to be a person. Unfallen Adam is an ape…I feel that to be a person is to be in a situation of tension…A truly adjusted person is not a person at all—just an animal with clothes on…”

Later, in the volume Picked-Up Pieces, he amplified:

Every human being who is not a moron is the locus of certain violent tensions that come with having a brain.”

It may well be that creative people simply flee from any notion of consummate wholeness and inner peace, lest the friction that provides the spark of so much creative fire be permanently dimmed. But who wants nonstop peace anyway? We’ll have plenty of time for that when we are rendered to ash and spread along our favorite coastal spit or mountain trail by our dutiful survivors.

We need our edges, our frictions, the slightly unbalanced terrain where we wobble and adjust and occasionally sprain our ankles before setting our inner gyroscopes anew.

Actually, even the prospect of eternal peace in a conscious hereafter leaves me feeling vaguely itchy and ill at ease, as in the recent spate of first-person accounts trumpeting the “reality” of heaven with its searing light, bands of roving angelic choirs and long-lost relatives (including my scruffy pet dogs) all reunited and waiting for me in the clouds. If I face that situation and am bequeathed with any druthers at all, I suspect I will make a 180-degree pivot and grasp post-haste for the rappel lines back down to this tragedy-laden sphere of flesh, bone and pain.

It’s true that darkness is dangerous, can even become an obsession and turn to depravity, but that is quite the opposite of Hillman’s efforts to cast light on the full spectrum of  human consciousness in order to better understand and perhaps defuse its hold over us. (I’m not so sure about Roth, whose Mickey Sabbath takes darkness to heinous comic extremes that bring to mind the nihilism of Marquis de Sade and the shoulder-shrugging amorality of a Quentin Tarantino film.)

Ultimately, it is only in our fragmentation, our brokenness, our falling upon falling, that we can begin to understand what the landscape of wholeness might actually look like. And the view from here suggests it won’t be tied up within a tidy little bow of unruffled peace, but instead be a naturally flowing force of dark and light, confusion and satisfaction, howling Arctic winds and calming Mediterranean sun. Each in its season, its time, its insistent interruption of anything pretending to a smug permanence not meant for this world.

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Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

2 comments to Against Wholeness

  • Jeffrey Schmidt  says:

    Great article Andrew. Love the point blank taking on of a wishful state of mind that can insulate us from reality.

  • Layne  says:

    Andy, I'm not sure your new perspective on wholeness necessitates leaving your church. There's a lot to be said for the camaraderie of fragmented souls yearning for a greater truth. It's the desire for perfection/wholeness/ideals that enables imperfect souls to reach cathartic levels of behavior and self-realization. Where did you get the idea you need to be perfect? Perfection is boring. It's the desire to be whole that makes souls interesting, and I suspect perfection is a fluctuating continuum and not a constant. Life is rich.

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