The “Problem” of Anxiety and Freedom: Soren Kierkegaard, Arcade Fire, and the “Promise” of “Creature Comfort”

 

anxiety

 

It goes on and on, I don’t know what I want,

on and on, I don’t know if I want it.

On and on I don’t know what I want,

on and on, I don’t know if I want it…

From “Creature Comfort” by Arcade Fire, “Everything Now”

A chorus from Arcade Fire that is “dizzying” in both “merry go round” style – “on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on” – and actually also in content, which this post will explore. Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Does that mean that “Creature Comfort” for the anxious is the ultimate thing we should seek? Is our anxiety itself one of the “Signs of Life” that as a “Manifest Propensity” empirically shows that we were created for more than simply consuming (and being consumed by?) the creature comforts marketed to us constantly?

Arcade Fire’s petition to God about the “problem of freedom” is “just make it painless” with painlessness coming through the “Creature Comfort” supposedly promised and provided for through the technological consumerism of “Everything Now.”  Arcade Fire raises one of the most perennial questions of human beings regarding God. Can God, if we consider God as the One that is the creator of human life, able to make that life “painless” for a being that is created with a measure of freedom? It seems that Soren Kierkegaard thought that freedom inevitably produces a measure of anxiety for creatures endowed with that gift.

If that is true, then question becomes, what do we do with this “birthright” of anxiety? Do we try to manufacture “comfort” for the “creature,” the solution that Arcade Fire sees as the “anxiety fix” currently on offer for any and all of us willing to buy into that solution? The manufacturers of such “creature comfort” constantly bombard us with the assurance that we ought to “Put your money on me?” In fact, we all tend to buy into that solution simply because it is the given of our existence now. In a sense we have already paid for it, simply as the price of admission to the modern world.

Infinite Content.

Infinite Content.

We’re infinitely content.

All your money is already spent on it.

All you money is already spent.

On Infinite Content.

From “Infinite Content” by Arcade Fire, “Everything Now”

With nearly biblical poetical genius Arcade Fire reveals the pseudo-religious character of this captivating sales pitch which captures precisely because it tends to exhaust all our resources so that we can’t afford anything else. All our money is already spent! We’re overly invested. But that’s alright because we’re so “infinitely content!” Many or most of us will probably admit how trapped we feel in this situation. But lurking within is the anxiety of dizziness caused by our struggle between wanting and not wanting to remain sellouts to the consumerist solution of “Creature Comfort.”

Soren Kierkegaard defined anxiety as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy.” Mark A. Tietjen explains that “It occurs when one is attracted to and repulsed by the same thing.” We seem to be attracted to the comforts offered, but repulsed by the loss of freedom we pay for them.

A short alternative answer from Kierkegaard was that we shouldn’t evade our birthright of anxiety, for the sake of a false “comfort,” but rather embrace it. For in that path lies becoming the self we were created to be.

“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self…. And to venture in the highest is precisely to be conscious of one’s self.”
Søren Kierkegaard

I think it is highly possible that Arcade Fires’s song “Put Your Money On Me” contains a double entendre regarding two different voices pleading for us to put our money on them. The first, which we all know all too well, has already been considered. The other is the anti-type of the former. Arcade Fire’s song “We Don’t Deserve Love” explicitly evokes Jesus Christ with the plea to a “Mary” to “roll away the stone” and the mention of the “Christ-types” which leave Mary (us) alone and inevitably don’t provide what we need (love) so that we are always “waiting on” them. I believe that point is that the “Christ-types” can’t give us love. The more sinister underlying narrative of the false savior consumer culture is that we are merely “consumers” and as such are less than human beings. In other words “We Don’t Deserve Love.”

So to return to the double entendre of “Put Your Money On Me” – it is actually present through the song as a complex counter-narrative wherein there is an “either/or” (Kierkegaard) regarding the identity of the one speaking throughout the song. Is it the false Christ offering us “creature comfort” through loss of our own true self or the real Christ offering us love through the gain of true self-hood?  I believe that the “counter-narrative” of the real Christ is actually stronger because of a few of the lyrics, but I still call it the counter-narrative because of Arcade Fire’s “Money + Love” video in which the speaker is obviously the false one. The section of the song that I believe most explicitly can apply to Christ, and can’t really apply to “consumerism” is this:

My mother was crying on the day of our wedding.

Trumpets of angels call for my head.

But I fight through the ether and I’ll quit when I’m dead.

If you wanna know who’ll be there in the end,

When you bury me, baby, I’ll still be your friend.

It is also important to note that the basic premise of the song is the difficult and anxiety producing struggle for freedom by the one being spoken to throughout. The song closes before the epic track “We Don’t Deserve Love” with the words, “I know it’s not easy to put your money on me, all your money on me.”

It is also interesting to think about the scenario of “venturing” for the freedom of true self, as Kierkegaard calls it, in light of the fact of the seeming unfreedom inherent in the fact all our money “is already spent.” Is it possible Arcade Fire’s narrative/ counter-narrative interplay in which money is required for everything leads one to the biblical invitation to freedom for those in bondage that does not require the soul destroying commodities the world trades in? In other words, was Win Butler who majored in Bible and Philosophy at McGill and has explicitly given credit to the Bible and Kierkegaard as constantly forming the way he approaches everything, thinking about the only commodity God “trades in” with humans, namely our anxiety producing gift of freedom of choice?

Isaiah 55 Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. (King James Version)

 

Kierkegaard saw how humans deal with anxiety as bound up with the problem of despair. His thought on that problem is more than can be dealt with at the end of this meditation. So I’ll merely add this quote in which he shows that despair can be overcome through the proper reaction to anxiety which is possible through “resting transparently” in God.

“The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.” (Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death)

I apologize for not taking time to add links to Arcade Fire’s songs, but I assume that for most of us, being adept with navigating “infinite content,” they are easy to find!

Thanks so much for reading!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Arcade Fire’s “Month of May” and the Question of Posture

From the first time I heard this song I found the lyric regarding the posture of some young people to be very interesting. Here is the excerpt:

Now the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
The kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Now some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
I said some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
So young so young
So much pain for someone so young well
I know it’s heavy I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?

The song adds another verse that seems to provide a hope that this adopted posture will not become ultimate fate:

If I died in the month of May
Let the wind take my body away then
Wish I may I wish I might
Don’t leave me down there with my arms folded tight

The adopted posture here has perhaps become that of the corpse in the casket, and seemingly signifies a desire for being saved from such a permanent posture. But the honest irony in the lyric is that it is saying “the kids” adopting such a posture are already dead! They certainly cannot do something only live people do, which is to “lift” the pain that has perhaps provided the impetus (or excuse?) for their posture.

I find these lyrics to be quite interesting in relation to the cynicism and skepticism that seems to be part and parcel of the generation that has grown up in postmodern times. U2 sang of this generation in one of their earlier songs called “Like a Song” on the 1983 album “War.”

A generation without name, ripped and torn
Nothing to lose, nothing to gain
Nothing at all
And if you can’t help yourself
Well take a look around you
When others need your time
You say it’s time to go… it’s your time.
Angry words won’t stop the fight
Two wrongs won’t make it right.
A new heart is what I need.
Oh, God make it bleed.
Is there nothing left?

I included the exhortation of U2 to help others “if you can’t help yourself” to highlight Arcade Fire’s question to those that have adopted the “arms folded tight” posture that prevents helping oneself or others.

Of course postmodernism is not the actual cause of such postures, unless postmodernism has always existed! The truth seems to be that such postures are a common (albeit not necessarily uncomplicated nor a wholly conscious) choice of us human beings. C.S. Lewis provided an interesting story about some dwarves in the perilous times of “The Last Battle” in his Chronicles of Narnia. This brief summary from a commentator should be adequate to show that “the kids” with the “poor postures” in Arcade Fire’s “Month of May” are very much akin to Lewis’s dwarves, and that such postures can become permanent liabilities.

Among other things, I think the chronicles help children (and adults) understand the fundamental battle in life between good and evil. Good is represented by a great lion named Aslan, an archtype of the resurrected Christ. In the land of Narnia, evil shows up in many familiar guises of wicked witches, horrible beasts, and dark dwarfs.

The last of the seven books is appropriately entitled, The Last Battle (Revelation?). In this chronicle, the evil characters are Narnian dwarfs. They are dark and gloomy folk, with sneering grins, who distrust the whole world. The basic issue is that they have chosen to live in darkness, refusing to see the good around them, refusing to believe that Aslan can bring God’s light into their lives and world. So, they live in misery, squalor, and self-imposed darkness.

Near the end of the story, some of the children who follow Aslan go out into a field where the dwarfs live. They want to make friends; they want to help them see the light and the beauty of the world which surrounds them.

When they arrived, they noticed that the dwarfs have a very odd look and were huddled together in a circle facing inward, paying attention to nothing. As the children drew near, they were aware that the dwarfs couldn’t see them. “Where are you ?” asks one of the children. “We’re in here you bone-head,” said Diggle the dwarf, “in this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.”

“Are you blind?” asks another child. “No,” respond the dwarfs, “we’re here in the dark where no one can see.”

“But it isn’t dark, you poor dwarfs,” says Lucy, “look up, look round, can’t you see the sky and flowers – can’t you see me?” Then Lucy bends over, picks some wild violets, and says, “perhaps you can smell these.” But the dwarf jumps back into his darkness and yells, “How dare you shove that filthy stable litter in my face.” He cannot even smell the beauty which surrounds him.

Suddenly the earth trembles. The sweet air of the field grows sweeter and a brightness flashes behind them. The children turn and see that Aslan, the great lion himself, has appeared. They greet him warmly and then Lucy, through her tears, asks, “Aslan, can you do something for these poor dwarfs?”

Aslan approaches the dwarfs who are huddled in their darkness and he growls. They think it is someone in the stables trying to frighten them. Then Aslan shakes his mane and sets before the dwarfs a magnificent feast of food. The dwarfs grab the food in the darkness, greedily consuming it, but they cannot taste its goodness. One thinks he is eating hay, another an old rotten turnip. In a moment, they are fighting and quarreling among themselves as usual. Aslan turns and leaves them in their misery.

They children are dismayed. Even the great Aslan cannot bring them out of their self-imposed darkness. “They will not let us help them,” says Aslan. Their prison is only in their minds and they are so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. “But come now children,” says Aslan, “we have other work to do,” and they leave the dwarfs alone in their miserable world.

These chronicles of Narnia reflect an ancient way of presenting truth through stories – using allegory. Allegorical stories help us see, through ordinary events, another higher level of truth. In this tale, the earthly lion, Aslan, represents the heavenly resurrected Christ who brings hope and life and light into the world.

What the children of Narnia discover, to their dismay, is that everyone has a choice… to see and respond to that light or to sit in self-imposed darkness unwilling to see the beauty which surrounds them, to smell the violets held under their nose or eat of delights of God’s table set before them.

We all know people like this who live in the dark. It is a lesson Lucy, Edmund, and the other children will carry with them as they return home through the magical door which separates the mystical kingdom of Narnia from their very ordinary earthly home. It’s a lesson we must all eventually learn as we walk through the shadowy valleys of life.

(The excerpt is from the Lewis website: Into the Wardrobe)

dwarves

In conclusion, Arcade Fire’s “Month of May” provides a very good commentary and warning concerning our reactions to the perilous winds that challenge our life, if we wish for our life to ultimately be more than premonitory postures for death.

Neither I, nor Arcade Fire, nor U2, nor C.S. Lewis make light of “the problem of pain” or violent winds in the month of May. But neither should we make light of our reaction and response that consists in a posture that is more dangerous in the long run because it has to do with what kind of person we are becoming.

So young so young
So much pain for someone so young well
I know it’s heavy I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?

Comments are always welcome. Someone must have some thoughts about something here.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

Some thoughts on our “natural” human reaction to God’s grace (from Flannery O’Connor, Dean Koontz, Mary Doria Russell, and Jesus of Nazareth)

unbelief-of-st-thomas-after-caravaggio-massimo-tizzano

“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

– Flannery O’Connor

An excerpt from “A Catholic Thinker” blog article “The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor“:

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”

“This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said He came to bring.”

“[The trendy “beat” writers] call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing. It’s true that grace is the free gift of God but in order to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial.”

And when explaining (what I considered incomprehensible) “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to a friend,

“There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected. Like when the Grandmother recognizes the Misfit as one of her children (a child of God) and reaches out to touch him. It’s the moment of grace for her anyway – a silly old woman – but it leads him to shoot her. This moment of grace excites the devil to frenzy.”

Excerpt from “Odd Thomas” by Dean Koontz:

Most people desperately desire to believe that they are part of a great mystery, that Creation is a work of grace and glory, not merely the result of random forces colliding. Yet each time that they are given but one reason to doubt, a worm in the apple of the heart makes them turn away from a thousand proofs of the miraculous, whereupon they have a drunkard’s thirst for cynicism, and they feed upon despair as a starving man upon a loaf of bread. (page 142)

Excerpt from “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell:

God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God (Quoted in “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places” by Eugene Peterson; page 177)

Excerpt from Mark 6:6 King James Version:

“And he marvelled because of their unbelief.” Jesus of Nazareth

(Whereas we marvel at belief.)

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2014

“The Scientist’s Prayer” by Walker Percy

Walker-Percy

Walker Percy

Possibly you have heard of “The Sinner’s Prayer” – well here is “The Scientist’s Prayer” which is an excerpt from the novel “Love in the Ruins” by Walker Percy. Possibly some people may not like it, but I enjoyed the humor and truth of human nature that it conveyed. Also, my instinct is that Walker Percy wrote it knowing his own human nature, and I also enjoyed it knowing my own human nature.

The prayer of the scientist if he prayed, which is not likely: Lord, grant that my discovery may increase knowledge and help other men. Failing that, Lord, grant that it will not lead to man’s destruction. Failing that, Lord, grant that my article in Brain be published before the destruction takes place. (Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins)

BMC @ Manifest Propensity

Comments are always welcome! Thanks!

The Happy Endings of Children’s Books : “An Unexpected Gift from on High” or merely Freud’s phenomena of “Wish-Fulfillment”?

A Series of...

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” (A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket)

Many people, at least since the time of Freud, have held that belief in God (and by extension the “Happy Ending”) is nothing more than the phenomena of wish-fulfillment. An interesting treatment of an answer to Freud by C. S. Lewis can be found here where the PBS documentary “The Question of God” was reviewed.

I was recently reading the book “Beyond Words” by Frederick Buechner, who writes the following which to my mind also sheds some light on the question of faith as wish-fulfillment. Buechner points out that children, who are more apt to demonstrate the natural response of humans to the mystery of life, do not take the “happy ending” for granted. Continue reading