Stranger Anxiety

It was interesting to me that on the day I posted about “red flags” and Andy added in details about my older son’s feelings of frustration and destructive anger at preschool, he was preparing for an exam on Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

We got to talking about the book, and about what it might say about humanity.  As I leafed through my kid’s copy of the book, notes scribbled in the margins, this beloved text was a stranger to me.  I remembered good old Meursault (a great anti-hero and a great wine, partly due to flint and partly due to existentialism) but memory is selective and I hardly remembered that the book begins with the death of his mother.

I remembered Meursault killing the Arab “for no reason,” but my son reminded me about the context of the murder—I did remember the surreal sense of sun and sand and ennui and nihilism… I vividly remembered Meursault heading to the gallows at the end hoping only for “howls of execration,” but the new translation had him hoping for “cries of hate.”

And yet, this character who spoke so deeply to me back in the dark despair of high school spoke deeply to my son all these years later.  We joked that he could end his essay by saying that he only hoped that his teacher would write comments of hate on it.

The thing about the existentialists, however, that has slowly dawned on me over years of life is that Sartre and Camus wrote as acts of love.  They said that life had no meaning, but as a high schooler with a case of Deutsche Angst that gave license for licentiousness and whatever depravity I could muster; as a psychologist and a blogger I see that while life may be a random Rorschach, we are free to create our own myths (provided we gain the consciousness to realize that we can, and do, create our own myths).

Camus may write about meaningless murder in a meaningless world, but he holds the mirror up in order to help us not just perpetuate the status quo—whether that is in health co-called “care,” education or never-ending economic expansion.

I found myself chatting with my kid and bonding over existentialism—connecting with my own alienated teenager across the transom of a book that for me was a wormhole in the cosmos leading out of boring suburban Chicago in into the hard-living garrets of artists everywhere.

I don’t much care what kind of grades my kids get so long as they make a sincere effort and actually learn something.  Talking about The Stranger made me clearer than ever that culture has lead to nothing but violence, materialism and modern alienation—that whatever my kid would write on his essay, it would certainly not be about an honest political, social or spiritual discourse but rather a pro-forma step on a ritual to get into college and become part of the very system that kills that Arab in that book, and which kills so many people around the world as we write and read these words—kills with bullets overseas and in the hood, and kills with lives of quiet desperation on the home-front.

Camus challenges us to make our own meaning by taking away the spoon-fed easy meaning provided by the Church or the State.  The meaning I choose to make is that consciousness is spontaneously advancing, and that culture is becoming flat rather than hierarchical.  The revolution that I see, at least in my self-created myth, is non-violent; it leaves the system to crumble and rebuilds itself organically along the lines of horizontal relationships, connections and mirroring recognitions of each other as opposed to power, soaring buildings and ridiculous lists of the richest and prettiest people.

The group is the richest; the relationships between us all far exceed any capacity of even the best and brightest of us.  We do not need more charismatic leaders, we need to consider the very real possibility that we’re all valid, all have a say and that we all love and are loved (perhaps this becomes true for us just as soon as we make this our myth—consciousness blooming spontaneously all around our awakening world).  Change may mean the death of the world that we’ve known, or more precisely the death of the myth that science will save us and that God will be found in a piece of paper with a picture of a pyramid with an eye staring back out at us.

I’m not trying to create a new myth for others to buy into, but rather encouraging us to collectively accept that all of our perspectives, all of our myths, taken in aggregate, is the new myth.  This is a perspective that widens consciousness to hold opposites, healing the Western Christian split or duality of good and evil, and uniting it with the time, space, fear and desire-transcending consciousness of the East.  This brings us to life in the present time and world, and allows us to work together to be of service… to each other.

So, let’s dedicate today to dusting off the black turtleneck of the mind and re-engaging in honest and passionate discourse about what time it really is here on planet earth—re-making our myth in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce



5 Responses to “Stranger Anxiety”

  1. Helen Slater Says:

    Beautifully written! It rings true to me, to renounce a culture of hierarchy and power, charismatic leaders and speeches. Mirroring each other and connecting with love and kindness to our (extended) family seems to be the order of the day. Works of art will always unfold, descend, rise up…but can we allow room for the particular, individuated (child) who is navigating edges and sorrow to be authentic in our presence? I pray with all my heart to remember that.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Making a somewhat different observation on this (engaging on so many levels) writing –

    My own recollections of reading The Stranger, in French and in high school, are also fairly vague. It’s been awhile. I do remember the sense of encountering new (dark) thoughts that felt as though I could spill around in them and get a better sense of what the human psyche and variations in human existence might mean. I had the same feeling reading Crime and Punishment for the first time (at 16 or 17), eerily tiptoeing through Raskolnikov’s inner workings.

    For me – as I watched my son read Camus a year or two ago, in French, was to see his excitement, to sit across from him and palpably feel the energy as he talked through what an amazing piece of literature it was, both form and content.

    As a parent, I have observed my sons step into literature (or art or music or film or other things I have far less knowledge of), and then explore it from their 15-year old and 16-year old and 17-year old eyes. I have listened to their same enthusiasm at the exposure of viewpoints and actions – both deemed “good” and “bad” and everything in between. And I have taken pleasure in realizing that they are walking through similar doorways of discovery, and will build upon what they learn as those of us who have been privileged to be invited into the arts have done at various stages of development.

    To me – it is natural to question so much (perhaps everything except parental love, if you’re lucky) in both childhood and adolescence. To see that, to encourage it, to know that it is part and parcel of what we hope will be a questioning of principles for the “betterment” of ourselves and others – it’s the same as taking pleasure in those first steps, those first words, and each milestone we want for our children.

    Alienation is something we all know in adolescence, from our own bodies and sense of self, and from others. Perhaps that’s what makes these so-called dark works so appealing, and also, so important.

  3. Sue Says:

    Bruce, what a cool dad you are! Not just by acting as the bowl for your son’s enthusiasm and reflecting it back to him, but for really being interested in something your child was interested in, and taking the time to share that with him. So many times we as parents try to interest our kids in something WE are interested in, which can be fine if we don’t take it too far, but you met your son where he was at and engaged him there. So important when they are teenagers and focused on what is going on in their own heads, not anyone else’s. I hope he knows how lucky he is! If not, I’m sure you know he will realize someday. -Sue

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      How kind you are to say this… yet I must confess that this one feels rather undeserved, as my personal enthusiasm for Camus eclipses my kid’s… however, the very fact that he relates to the book but doesn’t adore it… that may be a sign of having gotten more engaged parenting than the forces that once lead me to feel that only Camus, Sartre and teenaged me knew what it was all about.

      Either way, thanks so much for taking interest in my words, and in being so kind an affirming. Hope that comes back to you sooner and later.

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