Thursday, November 10, 2016


You're suffering today. And you and I both know why: the world just changed. To everyone's surprise, Donald Trump just got elected president, and now you don't know how to think about anything. Nothing makes sense. Hope seems to have disappeared. But even though this is a time of grief, there's a hope for the future that wasn't there a few days ago. The world looks dark right now, but darkness only looks like darkness in contrast to light. That light - even though it's hidden - is there. And now it's set to illuminate our souls more than ever. The task now is to see it.
Let me tell you how.


Emanuel Swedenborg was an eighteenth-century scientist, philosopher, and theologian who claimed that his mind was open to the spiritual world, which he could travel to at will. This sounds crazy, but apart from saying that he has helped me more than any other author, it isn't important to talk about his sanity. His writings are valuable right now because of what he taught about temptations. And temptations are important because those of us in despair are going through one right now.
Swedenborg said that temptations are a state of mind that threatens what matters to you. When you've made up your mind to follow the commandments and you get an impulse to drink alcohol or watch pornography, this is a temptation. Temptations happen when you're filled with impulses or thoughts that could lead you away from what you love, wedging you between the rock of your good desires and the hard place of the evil desires that lead you away from it. And it's terrifying. You've made up your mind to do what's good and believe what's true, but in the middle of a temptation, you find that you might not want to do or believe those things anymore. Good seems to retreat. Evil seems about to conquer. But this is just how it seems.
According to a beloved quote from Swedenborg,
So long as temptation continues, man supposes the Lord to be absent...Yet the Lord is then more intimately present than he can ever believe. When however temptation ceases, then he receives consolation, and then first believes the Lord to be present. (Arcana Coelestia 840)
Temptations are actually a balanced fight between good and evil, not a slaughter of good by evil. If evil took over, you wouldn't even see it as a problem. Evil and good are both ways of acting and seeing the world with their own "delights," and if good vanished, you'd rush headlong into evil's dirty pleasures without a second thought. You wouldn't even remember things like peace of conscience or the love of God. In other words, when someone feels rotten, anxious, and miserable in times like these, that anxiety is a sign that they have a lot of good inside them. In fact, anxiety is a sign that God has big plans for that person. Someone who's never felt any anxiety will maybe never reach the spiritual heights possible for one who struggles with and through it.
For this anxiety, this temptation, is how God frees us from evil impulses and false thoughts. When you're in the middle of a temptation, the tension you feel means that you have the opportunity to make a uniquely powerful choice. You can go with the temptation and keep that evil with you, but you can also fight and freely choose the good. And when this happens - when you use your God-sanctioned freedom to "choose the right" - a huge change happens. Having chosen goodness, it becomes much more present in you than it was before. Since you chose the good in you even when it was hard, the organ of your "choosing" - your heart, your will, your inmost parts - get flooded with God's love.
But there's another important aspect here. For the root of all evil is the belief that you have power from yourself. It is the sin of the Fall, since by believing that we're separate and self-sufficient beings, we "separate" ourselves from God and His love. Obviously, just as the Fall was necessary, this "love of the self" is also necessary. We would be divine robots without it. But any "love of the self" in us should be in service to a higher love, "love for the Lord," just like the body obeys the head. Since all temptation has the end of getting us to choose virtue over sin, and since all sin comes from love of the self, the ultimate purpose of temptation is to attack that evil self-love. In other words, temptation is all about death: we die to our selfishness, pride, and worship of ourselves, and we're reborn to togetherness, freedom, and love. We stop clinging to ourselves to not fall into the abyss, and find, to our amazement, that God has always been holding us safely. You thought that you were powerful enough to save yourself, but only when you realize your powerlessness do you see how safe you are
In fact, realizing your powerlessness gives you power. Swedenborg wrote that the angels in heaven are lose their power to the extent they think it belongs to them, just as acknowledging their weakness makes them powerful. In fact, perfect strength is what the world considers weakness. Think of how water can burst dams even though it passively takes the shape of the reservoir. Think of how tense muscles get hurt more easily than flexible ones. Or think of how Christ, the most powerful being of us all, submitted himself to be humiliated and executed in a moment of what seemed like utter meaninglessness. This was a temptation - nothing made sense, and the promise of the Kingdom seemed lost. To everyone there, death had won. But it was just then, as Christ trusted and loved his Father in spite of all his despair, anxiety, and confusion, that the miracle happened. The strength of weakness won, and death died.


We're in the middle of a temptation right now. It looks like the end of the world: Donald Trump, the bully, sleazy rapist, and xenophobe, won. But Trump's victory is a wake-up call. Nothing we do will ever make a difference - no matter how many angry protests happen or how many celebrity videos Joss Whedon makes, evil will win. But hope isn't gone. Hope might actually be here more than before, because now many of us realize that, when you only look at what we ourselves can do, the future IS literally hopeless. But the real hope for our future doesn't come from us. It comes from God, and only when we realize that we've sinned by attributing his power to ourselves will that change happen.
God wants to give us blessings beyond number. But we desperately cling to our own sense of power,  and since God will never violate our agency, He can't give us the greatest blessing of all: the peace of trusting Him. Only now, as we're being shown our utter poverty, we have the opportunity to choose something more than ourselves. We can turn away from the darkness of ourselves and toward the overpowering light of God, who is love itself, the very essence of trust, faith, and the strength of weakness
So what do we do now? That's the question, isn't it? You could resign yourself to give up to God, but then you are trying to give up, which is a disguised kind of pride.  We have to stop trying, and what's more, we have to stop trying not to try! Luckily, the temptations we're talking about are the best (and only) way we can get there. Like someone in full-lotus meditation who relaxes his muscles to stop her legs hurting, it will get easier and easier for us to give up and give in to God as we go along. That is our hope: that what becomes darker and darker to our egos is actually the dawning of light for love.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Throwing Away Your Shot

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius. This goes without saying: he was the the author, composer, and leading man of the Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton, and he can come up with jaw-droppingly clever rhymes in the spur of the moment. Just give him a beat. But what does it mean to say that someone is a "genius?" The word comes from Latin, where it meant "an attendant spirit present at one's birth," what the Greeks called a "daimon." The genius is like the angel on your shoulder: a little ghost that whispers inspiration to you. When we say that Lin-Manuel is a genius, we mean that he has a genius. And he's no stranger to it.

On the Genius

But isn't this just a bunch of old Roman hooey? It isn't. Here's my evidence: Lin-Manuel is very talented at doing things "on the fly." Not only can you see this in the talk show episodes where he cleverly does freestyle raps with only a few seconds to prepare, but it shows up in the musicals he writes too. Most of the songs in Hamilton have rhymes, rhythms, and meanings so well woven together that they bear the character of something whole. No part of My Shot's lyrics can be separated from the other parts without the whole thing losing its meaning. This organized whole - what psychologists would call a gestalt - can't be assembled piece by piece. Its living kernel needs to come all at once, and as such it needs to have been given. The one who gives this whole is the genius. The genius is where inspiration begins.

The concept of the genius is another way of saying that works of art aren't just a collection of notes or drops of paint. Hamilton isn't a collision of billiard balls on a musical pool table. As a gestalt, it's more than the sum of its parts. If you took the parts away and considered them apart from each other, it would lose meaning and its life. And this life is the genius: what organizes these parts into something whole, something significant. Without the genius, the work is contrived, uninspired, or even dead.

The genius of Lin-Manuel is what caused a sensation in the nation, what kept "the ten-dollar founding father" on our bills. Without it, all of that would fall apart into brittle, dissociated pieces. It's time we learned more about it.

Hamilton's Shot

"You have married an Icarus. He has flown too close to the sun."

Hamilton isn't just a product of genius. It's about more ways than one. Not only is its main character a prodigy, a Mozart of letters, but its ultimate message is about what happens to genius when it pops into the world. In Hamilton, the genius announces who he is and tells us about himself. It's a tell-all, a full disclosure.

The genius comes from somewhere else. It strikes us unawares - while sitting on a park bench, walking, or reading a biography - but the genius isn't confined to the book we're reading. It only appears by means of it, as if Ron Chernow's book were a mirror the genius used to see itself. In itself, it exists beyond the bounds of things and definite ideas. It breaks through; it "bursts" into awareness.

Hamilton (the character) is a lot like that genius. Like a flash of inspiration, he comes from somewhere else (the Caribbean), and he comes here (the colonies) to shake everything up. Both Hamilton and the genius affect everything they touch. They're both a bundle of fiery energy just waiting to explode. And fire can't easily be held: he commits adultery, he gets into fights, and he spills his private secrets out into the world without any scruples, just as inspiration doesn't lend itself easily to the real-life projects that can contain it.

But I'll argue that Hamilton isn't just similar to the genius. Hamilton is genius announcing itself. He is the promise of a new idea, the openness of a gestalt and all the ways you can understand it. He is the possibility of curiosity, intuition, and ambition. In every flash of insight, Hamilton's ship is in the harbor. See if you can spot him.

But the genius often isn't received well. New ideas and fresh perspectives are all well and good, but many people are scared by the thought of any change. The inevitable resistance that rises up against social progress is a case in point. Hamilton threatens the establishment. That establishment says: "if you talk, you're gonna get shot." And he often does. Look at John Lennon or Martin Luther King Jr.: both shot at the height of their path toward change.

It goes without saying at this point that the establishment gets personified in Hamilton through Aaron Burr. He "keeps out of trouble," and "keeps his cards close to his chest": both motions of closure as opposed to Hamilton's radical openness. Hamilton is soaring freedom; Burr is enclosed restriction. Hamilton is the liberal; Burr is the conservative. Hamilton is yes; Burr is no. These are opposites, but they need each other. You can't have open without closed, after all. But neither of them see this until the very end. With Hamilton's and Burr's dueling pistols loaded and pointed at each other, the opposition that defines our culture - ambition and pessimism, idealism and realism, liberal and conservative - goes into its final showdown. Who will win? Who will lose? What actually happened, at least in the musical, surprised everyone: Hamilton threw away his shot.

Hamilton, who fought against tyranny and restriction his whole life, decides to let it have the last word. He points his pistol at the sky, like his son, knowing that he would probably die. Why? I think it's because, at that last moment when he saw the "other side," he saw the secret behind the world's deceptive appearance: that when Burr and Hamilton fight, both lose. So instead of pointing his pistol at his enemy, he points it at the sky. He sees that "whoever takes the sword perishes by the sword" and that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." And he perishes by a twitch of Burr's finger.

But this act, where the genius points himself back at the sky instead of fighting the limitations of the earth, doesn't count for nothing. It leaves everyone dumbfounded. As the genius returns to the beyond where he came from, we - like the centurion at Christ's crucifixion - can tell that something more-than-human has just happened. The air is pregnant with unsayable meaning even as there's "wailing in the streets." And it leaves people changed.

Likewise, every time we realize that our high-flying ideals, ambitions, and insights don't belong on earth, we point its pistol at the sky and it returns home. We don't lose the insight, but we remember that it comes from something fundamentally other than me: the genius. For the genius will return home sooner or later. With the geniuses in history like John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, or Mozart, it could only ascend by killing the person. But a person - realizing that he's "only human" - puts down the burden of "being the genius" and can work with that inspiring spirit productively.

This is crucial for our culture today. As liberals fighting conservatives and conservatives fighting liberals, we don't realize that these political ideals which Hamilton and Burr show so well don't belong on earth. They come to us from somewhere else, somewhere divine and not human. By acknowledging that and realizing that they aren't our own, we point our pistol at the sky and let the conflict so bitterly played out on the national stage lose its life-or-death quality. But this is true of every ideal, every cause, or even every emotion that carries us beyond ourselves. It's not us: it's something greater than us, and only by acknowledging that can we end the cycle of pain that getting possessed by these forces inevitably causes. Let the gods be the gods; let humans be humans. Only apart can they work together.

Will you throw away your shot? Will you plant seeds in a garden you never get to see? More depends on these questions than you could ever think.