For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.Romans 14:7-9
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”Luke 15:8-10
As I was reading this morning, I came across a passage (see below) from Adam Phillips’ small text Attention Seeking. As you can see, Philipps is speaking here about how our dreams can afford insight into all the unconscious objects of our interest and attention during the day. He concludes the paragraph by suggesting that there is an “exorbitant unpredictability of our attention and that our refusal to recognize and acknowledge where our attention is being drawn greatly obscures our possibilities.” He then says that Freud’s giving the general term sexuality to the unconscious objects of our attention may well “circumscribe” and “over-code what is being referred to.”
I don’t believe I had ever before seen the term “over-code.” So, I spent some time looking it up. As I did so, it struck me that one of the greatest obstacles to a more alive and awakened life and to a fuller living out of our possibilities and our true original calling is our pervasive tendency to “over-code.” Freud remarkably describes the phenomenon of dreaming and of how in our dreams we work out the greater possibilities of our lives that we tend to lose in the ways we constrict our consciousness and awareness during the day. But he then, in an attempt, perhaps, to satisfy his “scientific” longing for a single meaning of a complex phenomenon, reduces that longing for greater possibility to “sexuality.”
While life suggests that there is little doubt that we have been culturally and religiously formed to fear, ignore and repress the “polymorphously perverse” roots of our sexuality, they are not the only longings to which we refuse to pay attention. In the settling into the socially-restrictive domestication of everyday life, we deny and obscure many different possibilities for our lives. Adrian van Kaam expands Freud’s view of the unconscious by seeing it as containing both what he calls an “infra-conscious” (Freud’s unconscious) and a “trans-conscious.” Our trans-conscious is our capacity, as spirit, to union with the Divine and with all. We are a longing not only for sexual connection and expression but also for communion.
In the words of St. Paul from today’s Romans reading, “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord.” On a day to day basis, unless we live practices that serve as reminders, we are largely unconscious of the truth that we are living for and in the process of dying for the Lord. We attend to the scriptures, to the Word of God in all the forms it comes to us, in large part to effect in us what Freud was attempting to effect with psychoanalysis: that is to awaken us to our own unconscious, to its interests, its objects of attention, and the greater possibilities to which these point.
One of the things that diminishes the power of the Word to break into that hard shell we form to protect and hide our unconscious is our tendency to over-code. So we read today’s gospel, and we readily “get it.” “Oh yeh, so God loves and forgives sinners!” Yet, because of the familiarity of the parables to us, we fail to be at all shaken or changed by them.
One of the reasons that the two parables of Jesus we read today in Luke “work” as parables is that we can readily recognize the “madness” in the behavior of the shepherd who has lost a sheep and the woman who has lost the coin. We know experientially how once we become aware that we have lost something, however minor, we come obsessed with finding it. Or, in our day, if we can’t find the way to perform a certain process on a computer program, we will spend hours of our working day in figuring out how to do this one, perhaps relatively minor, operation.
Once we identify in this way, we are also confronted with the craziness of our behavior. The other day I spent a very long time trying to find the program I needed to be able to edit a pdf file. As it turned out, I could have retyped the text and edited it in much less than half the time I spent trying to find the way to edit the file. Yet, I would not give up; I would not do what made far more sense in terms of my efficient use of time and energy.
In his teaching, Jesus is saying to us, “You know the madness that overtakes you as you obsess over what is lost or what you have forgotten how to do. There is something of the very nature of God and of mercy in that madness that there is not in your ‘normal’ behavior.” The teachings of the Wisdom traditions, as psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, are always taking on our tendency to over-code. For us, there will always be something of madness in the transcendent, in the Divine will. It is convention and conventional standards and living that, as Phillips puts it, “obscure our possibilities.”
In so many ways in the gospel Jesus describes God as extravagant by our standards. There is the father who goes to meet his lost son who has rejected his father and squandered all of his inheritance. He then holds a great feast for the lost son, even at the cost of evoking the resentment of his dutiful son. There is the inscrutable story of how those who work for one hour are paid the same as those who work the full day. There is the extravagance of the woman who pours the very expensive oil over Jesus’ feet. It must be significant that the dispositions and actions that Jesus so praises are all so “over the top” to us, that they put the one engaged with them outside of the convention’s of mature and socially acceptable behavior.
Adam Phillips says that we have “official curiosity” and “unofficial curiosity.” “Official curiosity” is sanctioned interest. It is what we are told and tell ourselves that we need and should pay attention to. Phillips says it is “a form of obedience, an indebtedness to the authorities.” In the gospel this is the attention of the Pharisees. They attend to the violations of the rules and to the antisocial and anti-legal behavior of Jesus as he dines with tax collectors and sinners. “Unofficial curiosity” is that to which we pay attention, as Phillips pus it, “despite ourselves.” He says, “In our unofficial curiosity we don’t know who we want to be judged by.”
Our lives as social constructs tend to foster ever deepening “official curiosity” and to increasingly deny our “unofficial curiosity.” Yet while, officially, the Pharisees insist on avoiding and excluding the tax collectors and sinners, Jesus, unofficially, is interested in them. For, in truth, they are much more interesting. One of our hidden secrets, not only from others but largely from ourselves, is that living only from social convention and official curiosity gets very boring. When we live together in an over-coded world, our conversations become really quite tedious and our presence to each other most uninspiring. A community of know-it-alls is dead, whether it knows it or not.
On the other hand, those whose interests are outside and beyond the norms of convention are much more interesting. Often it’s declared that sadly bad news sells but good news doesn’t. For all our protestations to the contrary, however, we all know that what captures our interest is what is different, not normative. We are drawn to the strange because in it we see something of the mystery of ourselves that is buried in our conventional lives. This is why the gospels and all great sacred writings are constantly overturning our expectations. As Isaiah puts it: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is 55:8).
All of this suggests a fairly basic spiritual practice: “Stop over-coding.” We live an ordinary arrogance, in our day to day lives, which presumes to know and understand. A revered teacher and mentor would always say: “I only know what you tell me.” To be really interested would lead us to want to know the other, but to do so we’d have to deeply listen. That listening requires us to become humble about our own understanding and interpretation. We must know how difficult it is to suspend our judgments and interpretations, and we must work at doing so in order that we might listen more fully.
As with others so with our own lives. We need to learn to listen reverently to that which we avoid in ourselves. We need to pay attention to what we are “unofficially” attending to, even though our own interest may offend our conventional sensibilities. We, and so our greatest transcendent possibilities, are very different from the person we present to the world. Wasn’t that true of the Pharisees, and wasn’t it even true of the tax collectors and sinners? The role they played in their society was not even the beginning of who they really were. It was Jesus who saw them as they truly were, as he did Zaccheus and the Samaritan Woman, as he did Judas and Peter.
We mistreat the world because we are convinced we know about it, we understand it, and it is ours to do with as we wish. But it is none of those things. It is mystery and everything we think or say about it is but a minute aspect of that Mystery. We uphold our pretense of understanding and control by over-coding. Yesterday I was speaking to a woman religious who is caring for her mother who is suffering serious illnesses in her later years. The Sister related to me how one night when her mother felt very unwell and was greatly distressed, she just sat and held her until the medication she had given her took enough effect to ease her mother’s discomfort. She was then able to return to bed, and, as she did so, she felt so small. There was really so little she could do for her mother other than just hold her and be with her. In this sense of being small, however, she experienced deep peace, knowing what was hers to do and what was God’s. Even, she said, if my mother had died that night, I knew, at least at that moment, that God was caring for her and for me.
When we over-code we are living out of a pride and arrogance that insists on self-aggrandizement. The truth is we know very little, of the world, of others, or ourselves, and certainly of God. In the truth of our smallness, we don’t really know if what we are doing is what we ought to be doing. We cannot even be certain that we are doing is what God wants of us. But that kind of certainty is not asked of us. What is asked of us is to live the way, truth, and the life to which we are uniquely called. To do so, we need to pay attention, not just to that dictated by our culture and our super-ego, and not that merely of the impulses of our bodily needs and desires, but also to the inspirations and aspirations our spirit receives from the Spirit. To do this we must cease demanding that we know and pay more attention to “the exorbitant unpredictability of our attention.”
Freud’s theory of dreams is a story about our unnoticed noticing, about our unofficial curiosity, about the interests we have, and the kinds of attention we give that we don’t, or would rather not, pay attention to, or when we are, to all intents and purposes, not paying attention at all. What happens, he is asking, to the attention we give to whatever is not socially sanctioned, or endorsed, or even just preferred by ourselves? He is drawing our attention not merely to the all too familiar but never really familiar sense we have that there are desires and intentions and ambitions we would prefer not to acknowledge, but also, to the sheer scale of our interests, to the exorbitant unpredictability of our attention; to the ways we obscure our possibilities. Calling it sexuality may already be to circumscribe, to over-code, what is being referred to.Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking, pp. 21-2