The Agony of Being
Connected to Everything
in the Universe [what?
by Andrew Boyd [who?
jan '02 w.w.norton
TIM HARRIS, OF REAL CHANGE NEWS, INTERVIEWS BROTHER
from a cell phone in the Albuquerque, NM rail yard
May 13, 2002
No one ever said living in late-capitalist consumer society
was going to be easy. Sure, we can get a good toasted bagel whenever we
like, but what does it all mean? What is the proper response to global
poverty, ecological doom, and the popularity of "reality" TV?
"Let the darkness light your way," says Brother Void.
Andrew Boyd, a long-time activist who reads too much,
has turned the syrupy self-help genre on its head to bring us the darkly
ironic book of Daily Afflictions, subtitled "The agony of being connected
to everything in the universe." Each page begins with a quote, such
as Nietzsche's "Whoever despises himself still respects himself as
one who despises," leads us through a few paragraphs of meditation,
and concludes with a pithy aphorism, in this case "My life is worthless,
but it is mine." Daily Afflictions has been called "ammonium
nitrate for the soul," and offers real wisdom to those of us who
persevere because, well, what choice do we have?
Is Skeptical Mysticism for everybody?
Probably not. I came to it as a paradoxical way to leave unresolved, or
hold in some kind of beautiful tension, incompatible beliefs. It's for
people who are inherently skeptical, and yet open to the wonder and mysteriousness
of existence, or who even have had mystical experiences that are incompatible
with an absolute skepticism. It's the belief system I use to create a
conversation between skepticism, and what you might call "revelation,"
and hold them in an ongoing tension.
You came to this by way of epiphany, a Saul on the road to Damascus
kind of thing. Do Skeptical Mystics need that, or can it be learned?
Let me tell you about one person who said to me, "I spent five years
in seminary, and it wasn't until I read your book that I realized I was
a Skeptical Mystic." So here was someone pursuing the spiritual path,
who after five years shrugged it off without understanding what he had
been doing or why he hadn't "succeeded." Maybe he thought he
didn't have what it took, or something like that. And then he came across
the book and this odd hybrid idea of Skeptical Mysticism
the solution I had to invent because nobody was offering it to me. So
he looked at it and said, "Yes, yes, that's what I am. I am this,
and yet I am also that."
Another of your key concepts is the idea of Compassionate Nihilism.
How do you describe that to the layperson?
That again is something I had to fashion out of incompatible belief systems.
On the one hand, I am dedicated to social revolution and to addressing
the heartbreak of the world. On the other hand, I don't believe the Universe
has any inherent or given meaning and I also distrust the progressive
teleology that things are going to get better. So what do you do? Suffering
demands a response, but you know that simple charity isn't the way to
go, that one must address structural problems. So the response has to
be a paradoxical and ironic melding of philosophies where I dedicate myself
to revolution without necessarily believing it will happen. So, revolution
is necessary but impossible--that's the paradox. To address this, one
becomes a Compassionate Nihilist.
The Amazon website says customers who bought your book also bought
"A Day Without Rain," by Enya. Is the Universe playing a joke
on you here?
The Universe is playing a joke on all of us. What can I say?
Can someone live in the Ranch House of the Soul and still commute downtown?
I think we all live in the Ranch House of the Soul, except maybe those
saints among us. It's the part of us that chooses to cut ourselves off
from others, to be satisfied with mediocrity. It's similar to the notion
of the "comfort zone" but with more of a socially critical edge.
By quitting the ranch house of the soul we can unlock our own potential
to encompass a greater reality. Eleanor Roosevelt said, "It's the
things you think you can't do that you must do." Our destiny lies
in those things we push away.
Why is telling the truth so hard to do?
There are both prosaic and deeper meanings here. Telling the truth can
be, "Yes, I stole the cookie from the cookie jar." That's not
what we're talking about here. We mean the deeper inner truth telling.
The confronting of who we are in our heart of hearts, and that is very
difficult. There's also the truth telling of creating ourselves. An Essentialist
will say there's a buried inner truth that needs to be uncovered. A Constructionist
will say that our truth is unwritten, that it only exists as a potential.
The idea here is that our lives are a story, a text that we write and
edit and play out. This kind of truth-telling is quite difficult: to shape
our own destiny, to create a world that is us, to shape ourselves as unique
and irreplaceable beings.
How can selfishness lead to a better world?
By recognizing that those of us who are engaged in making a better world
are not just doing this out of selfless and altruistic motives. There
is a component of egotism and selfishness. It's about who *we* want to
be in the world, even if it is nominally for others. Take you, for example.
Yeah, you. You've been a homeless activist for fifteen years, and in so
doing you are creating who you are, and you're in the world in a way that
feels right. And you seem like you've found the right place for you to
be. Being an activist, helps you to be grounded. By owning up to how much
you get out of it personally, you're better able to put your activism
on a path towards humility. It short-circuits the self-righteousness and
arrogance and grandiosity, and the noblesse oblige stuff. It's a more
authentic act of solidarity. It recognizes that the people you advocate
for offer you exactly what you want. And then it encourages others to
get involved because you are modeling a way to be in the world that works
for you, as opposed to a being all moralistic about it. As activists,
it behooves us to cop to that.
You quote Kafka as saying, "There is hope, but not for us."
Is this really helpful?
Every once in a while Kafka hits me with something that feels profound
and important, but I don't know what to do with it. I don't know what
this statement, means, but it feels right. It's scary. There's a morbid
fascination that I have for that quote. It's a funny paradox. And it's
dense. Seven short words. It feels profound. It's brilliant, and I don't
know what it means.
For me, it's one of the four statements that make up the touchstones of
Compassionate Nihilism: There's A. J. Muste's "I don't do this work
to change the world, I do it so the world doesn't change me." There's
the Gandhi statement, "Everything we do is futile, but we must do
it anyway," and then Gramsci's notion of "Pessimism with the
intellect; optimism with the will." Those four ideas are the touch
points. We change the world not just because it's the right thing to do
but because we must do it. There's an inner necessity. In the face of
our seemingly hopeless circumstances, such an ironic spiritual approach
is to me the only way to bear our burdens, and actually do something.
One of the more controversial aspects of your service is the Killing
of the Buddha. What did Buddha ever do to you?
It's a good question. I don't know that Buddha ever did anything to me
specifically. But as a representation of idolatry, and a freezing of the
quest, the idea here, I could use your help in articulating this
If you meet the Buddha--
Right. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Killing the Buddha
is about *not* fetishizing the quest for enlightenment into an image that
blocks you from the original intent. It's about freeing the existential,
the human encounter with the divine, from the symbol that has come to
represent it and has displaced the experience itself. This displacement
can happen with anything and everything, but religion is the classic example
of that, where we no longer seek the encounter, but merely live by ossified
rules and rituals and images. So in our comic church service we take the
reified object, this Buddha statuette that we think of fondly, and we
smash it into little tiny bits with the end of a broomstick to bring us
back to the absurdity of the Universe and the open-ended quest for enlightenment.
It reminds us that it's all really up to us, and that enlightenment isn't
what we expect it to be, and it isn't necessarily what we're wishing for.
We need to shatter our own assumptions. It's a lot easier to bow to the
statue than to have a terrifying encounter with absolute reality.
One last question. What have you done with Andrew?
(Laughs). I left him in the phone booth where I found the monk's cloak.