Psychoanalyzing a Personal Ethical Revival

A devil’s advocate psychoanalyzed me while I was away in Guatemala :

A few months back he found God, or his atheist non-existent equivalent. His emails to me began to change — at first I noticed the enthusiasm and purposefulness and figured he was just remembering how fun life can be if you’re not dragging a heavy desk job around on your back (he quit his job during his miracle conversion). But I also noticed a change of tone that seemed familiar but that I couldn’t quite place.

Then I realized… that he was acting born-again. It was not at all what I would have expected from the old cynic…

The obsession with questions of ethics (which he’d always seemed to dismiss as a dead-end street before); the cosmic portent he attributed to mundane choices in his wee, mortal, primate life; the way his words seemed to survey the field from a high altitude… everything was there except the wrathful thunder-voice from the clouds telling him what to do and the surrender to a mildewed literature of mythology and dogma.

Or so I hoped.… I’d tried to draw him out in email and get him to admit that he’d signed up for Landmark or gone in for that Buddhist stuff again or joined Narcotics Anonymous in the middle of a bad mushroom trip or found Jesus swimming in the bongwater. Nothing doing… he seemed to have been not on the 5-lane superhighway to Damascus when lightning struck, but going on his own uphill machete-chop through the jungle.

I think there’s a species of considered reflection and sober decision-making that has probably been respectfully suffixed with “complex” or “syndrome” in the hallowed journals of psychology. Fellows about his age suddenly become aware of themselves in a new way, discard their sophomoric philosophical dodges and amateur hedonisms, and then quickly hide under the big rock of some preformed dogmatic nonsense before things begin to get too scary.

It remains to be seen, I suppose, whether or not he will avoid that fate. But he seems pretty well-immunized. I guess this born-again mental process is independent after all from the dogma-vultures who feed on its victims.…

He’s kinda high on righteousness and rhetoric right now. He’s been reading Sartre on the French Resistance and you can tell he’s drawing parallels. He thinks he’s living in a country under occupation by vile aristocrats and their frightened toadies and, well, there’s not much to argue with in that interpretation except that it lends itself to extremes of melodrama and a certain urgency, if, that is, you’ve got a newfound concern for ethics or somesuch.

Well, it’s interesting to be put under the magnifying glass in this way. To the extent that open-ended observations like these need a response, the response should probably be centered on three questions that are raised: 1) Is my newfound interest in washing my hands of financial support of the government a symptom of a more general personal renaissance in the area of ethics? 2) Is this a stereotypical Seasons of a Man’s Life-style thing that I’m just embroidering with my own eccentricities (and therefore this blog is potentially as banal as the love poetry of the pubescent)? 3) Is it akin to a “born-again” religious conversion?

I’m tempted to start by making observations of my own, starting with the fact that all of this interesting examination might just be a fancy way of trying to evade question #4: But is he right? Amateur psychoanalysis can be a nice ad hominem way of trying to make an uncomfortable argument go away. (It can also be a way of getting further mileage out of the freak-show-like interest one can take in a kook with his bizarre manifestos and such — and if this is your motivation, I can sympathize with you, but forgive me if I don’t feel like indulging you.)

To questions #1–3 I may have to plead a reluctant “no contest.” I do feel like I have been taking questions of ethics a lot more seriously lately, and my decision to start this experiment is a symptom of that. Whether this is something that can be dismissed as a “syndrome,” as question #2 suggests, or if instead it is just an overdue maturing of my outlook is something you can decide for yourself.

As for the religious speculation, well, I guess in part it depends on your answer to #2. Religious answers to big questions aren’t really my style, I’ll tell you that much. I tend to see religious answers as ways of avoiding questions or wishing them away. That said, I’ll admit there’s more about this universe of ours that remains mysterious to me than there is that I’m pretty clear about, and there’s a lot of room in that mystery for stuff I’d be willing to adopt a worshipful attitude toward if any such thing shows its face to me, so I’m not going to write off the religious thing entirely.

And as I read about the history of tax resistance, civil disobedience, and such, and about people who stood up to governments bravely in ways I hope I’d be capable of — I’m finding that a lot of my role models and heroes have taken motivation and inspiration from religion. So I’m becoming a lot less hostile and dismissive of the religious outlook than I used to be. Religion for many people seems to be a way of avoiding questions of truth and responsibility, but for some people it’s a method for relentlessly confronting these same questions.