I have been reading The Varieties of Religious Experience, a series of university lectures in the psychology of religion given around 100 years ago by the great American psychologist and educator William James.
Three sequential lectures of the twenty have captivated me and I have pored over them to be sure I understand fully what Professor James has presented. These three lectures are named The Religion of Healthy-mindedness, The Sick Soul and The Divided Self, and the Process of its Unification.
Healthy-mindedness and The Sick Soul
The chapter on “healthy-mindedness” explores the psyche and other aspects of the person we might call a typical optimist. The following chapter on the “sick soul” can be similarly assigned to the pessimist. We have elements of each of these characteristics within us, but our inherent natures will cause us to lean, on balance, one way or the other. I was surprised to see that James feels the “pessimist” has the more apt outlook. I quote here from The Sick Soul:
(T)here is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may be after all the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deeper levels of truth.
The above tends to validate two of my father’s many borrowed aphorisms: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”; and “Murphy’s” famous law, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”
The Divided Self
Around age 21 I perceived I had two aspects: the watcher and the watched. That is, the evaluator and the actor (in life) being continuously evaluated. This “evaluator” was relentless and harsh in my early years, but after some very large ups and downs, and after several decades of living fully, the evaluator seems to have faded from, or merged with, the “actor.”
This perception of a divided self and an ultimate resolution or “unification” is what James addresses in The Divided Self and the Process of its Unification.
Nikos Kazantzakis, a passionate man, wrote in his autobiography, Report to Greco, “Fire and soil. How could I harmonize these two militant ancestors inside me?”
The writer Alphonse Daudet remarks at the beginning of his Notes on Life, “The first time that I perceived that I was two was upon the death of my brother Henri, when my father cried out so dramatically ‘He is dead, he is dead!’ While my first self wept, my second self thought, ‘how truly given was that cry, how fine it would be at the theatre.'”
Annie Besant, a leading figure in the beginnings of the Theosophical movement, states the following in her autobiography: “I have ever been the queerest mixture of weakness and strength, and have paid heavily for the weakness…An unkind look or word has availed to make shrink into myself as a snail into its shell, while, on the (speaking) platform, opposition makes me speak my best.”
James cites the writings of Saints John and Augustine in their internal struggles between sensuality (or “carnality”) and spirituality.
The Process of Unification
Professor James give further examples from the writings of Leo Tolstoy, John Bunyan and Henry Alline, among others, most of whom dwelt upon the resolution of their “divided self” as being in the religious or spiritual realm. But finding a new religious or spiritual path is not the only mean of unification, as Prof. James writes:
(T)he process of unification…may come gradually, or it may occur abruptly; it may come through altered feelings, or through altered powers of action; or it may come through new intellectual insights, or through experiences we shall…designate as ‘mystical.’ However it come (sic), it brings a characteristic sort of relief; and never such extreme relief as when it is cast into the religious mould. Happiness! Happiness! Religion is only one of the ways in which men gain that gift. Easily, permanently and successfully, it often transforms the most intolerable misery into the profoundest and most enduring happiness.
“But to find religion in only one out of many ways of reaching unity…For example, the new birth may be away from religion into incredulity; or it may be from moral scrupulosity into freedom and license; or it may be produced by the irruption into the individual’s life of some new stimulus or passion, such as love, ambition, cupidity, revenge, or patriotic devotion…
“These examples may suffice to acquaint us in a general way with the phenomenon technically called ‘Conversion’.” (Note:Conversion is the title of the subsequent lecture and can be read in full under the preceding link).
Although it was in the making due to some recent personal hardships and, as I mentioned earlier, having lived fully for decades, I had a conscious realization of this unity at the age of 60 and wrote this as a poetic memoir of it while observing a sunrise during a solo, early morning hillside hike on Easter Sunday of 1997:
This Sixty-Year Journey
Yes, there was pain,
But why dwell on it
Except for the lessons learned?
Yes, there was disappointment,
What was I expecting?
Yes, there was joy,
But I was too young
To fully know of it.
Yes, there was love,
But until now,
I did not understand it.
I was trying to be
I now know that love exists, endlessly,
And to drink of it
I need only to be open to it.
I am reborn!
I have a lifetime of experience ahead.
I enjoy my moments.
I laugh at my mistakes.
I love unrestrainedly.
I have plans.
I have no Plan.
My journey recommences;
I’ll see you along the way…
In accordance with Professor James’s citation of love as being one of the many triggers for such a realization (“Unification”? “Conversion”?), I was newly in love when I wrote this poem, and I remain so.