Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Divided Soul

An article entitled "A Life Lived Whole" by educator Parker Palmer in Yes! Magazine hooked me this evening. The essay begins:

“There is in all things … a hidden wholeness.”

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic who wrote these words, was speaking of the human world as well as the world of nature. But in our every?day lives, Merton's words can sound like wishful thinking. Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished, or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities and become separated from ourown souls. We end up leading divided lives, far removed from our birthright wholeness.

The divided life comes in many and varied forms. To cite just a few examples, it is the life we lead when:

• We refuse to invest ourselves in our work,
diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve
• We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not
absolutely demand it
• We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirit
• We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people
• We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change
• We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked

My knowledge of the divided life comes first from personal experience. A “still, small voice” speaks the truth about me, my work, or the world. I hear it and yet act as if I did not. I withhold a personal gift that might serve a good end or commit myself to a project that I do not really believe in. I keep silent on an issue I should address or actively break faith with one of my own convictions. I deny my inner darkness, giving it more power over me, or I project it onto other people, creating “enemies” where none exist.
Much of modern drama has focused on this story of the divided soul, because it is endemic to the modern era. Ibsen sounded the chord powerfully in the last quarter of the 19th century in plays like Ghosts and An Enemy of the People, and dramatist after dramatist has added their own notes to it as well. Often, we as artists are able to see this dividedness in others, but not in ourselves.

Some of our conversation on this blog -- conversations about what can be said publicly, for instance, about the work of others; conversations about whether we should take on projects that we don't believe in as a means to other opportunities; conversations about what we do in order to create theatre -- have passionately explored the boundaries of the divided life without really recognizing that these conversations resemble those that take place in places like Enron, or Merrill Lynch, or Lehman Brothers that we often see as being a world away from our own world of imagination and creativity.

But are they really? Aren't all the archetypal hero's journey stories about the courage needed to maintain wholeness, to do what is right and good, to follow our Personal Legend, to speak truth to power?

I think it was Robert Brustein in one of his later collections that discussed that what makes traditional tragedy powerful is that often it was the central character, the hero, who was implicated. Instead of pointing a finger at the audience, the hero (or the playwright) pointed it at himself. Perhaps that is the nature of artistic empathy, an attitude in which the artist sees himself as part of the community, not apart from it. It is hard, because we can't quite see ourselves from afar, so it is easier to see mote in the eye of another while ignoring the beam in one's own. But perhaps if we do, we can create works of art that will not only identify the divided self, but tell stories that give the courage and the reason to unify the self once again.


Lindsay Price said...

The divided soul and the journey to become whole is a very interesting visual image, which perhaps is why it's so useful for the theatre. Something to think about today...

Anonymous said...

The Hero's Journey, that's what it is. I just finished watching Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" and it's totally applicable to this discussion. The artist's capacity for empathy and sense of a higher purpose is (or should be) the catalyst for art.

Scott Walters said...

Tyler, would you elaborate on that idea a little?