At the Ministry of Misery?

Here’s the fifth (of seven) installments in my Ministry Series:

 

My unending search for Truth, the Great Secret, at one point seemed pointless. I was in despair. The Ministry of Mystery wasn’t listed in the Directory of Directorates, Bureaus, Ministries and Secretariats, and I’d given up looking for it after uncounted days of asking around. Whomever I’d asked would tell me the same thing: “It’s a mystery.”

One day amid the long rows of giant government edifices, teeming bureaucratic beehives, I thought for a split second that I’d found it. But the sign, in fact, read “Ministry of Misery, Third Floor.” The thought came that perhaps they might help to unburden me.

My depression seemed to get worse with every step I climbed, and by the time I reached the third floor I was half-blind with tears. I stood at the threshold of the first office I came to and paused to compose myself before I entered.

The man behind the counter put down his rubber stamp when I approached, looking up at me quizzically.

“Hello,” I said with forced cheerfulness. “I need some information.”

The man forced a smile and said, “Hello, I need some information.”

My smile faded. “Um, what kind of information?” I asked, puzzled.

“Um, what kind of information?” he queried in an equally puzzled tone.

A wave of despair washed over me and tears ran afresh. “You see, I’ve lost my Meaning and I’m trying to get it back. I’m miserable. I thought maybe you . . .”

The man behind the counter wept silently. “You see,” he said, “I don’t know why you’re here and I’m trying to understand. I’m despondent. I hope maybe you . . .”

“Look here!” I barked, hands on hips, suddenly angry. “I’m a tax-paying citizen, and when I come to a government office for help I do not expect to be mocked!”

He put his hands on his hips and barked back, “Look here! I’m a government employee, just doing my job; and when I’m doing my job properly, I do not expect to be criticized!”

“But this isn’t the kind of treatment I would expect at the Ministry of Misery!” I expostulated.

“But this is precisely the kind of treatment you’d expect at the Ministry of  Mimicry!”

I stepped back and looked at the sign above the counter. “Sorry,” I mumbled, chagrined. “Good day.”

“Sorry. Good day,” he mumbled back.

The Ministry of Misery was in the office next door. I went in, but apparently one of the secretaries had just hanged herself in the copying room, and all the staff members were weeping inconsolably. So I left to meander moodily in the metropolitan maze.

At the Ministry of Madness

Here’s the fourth installment (of seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

I never meant to seek the Ministry of Madness, but I suppose it had to happen sometime in my sometimes crazed pursuit of the supreme, serene Suchness that we all know, deep inside, is there. (But where?) It was on one of the many days  I spent seeking the elusive  Ministry of Mystery in Centre City’s massive maze of bureaucratic buildings. When I saw the arrow on the sign, “Ministry of Madness,” pointing down the corridor to the right, I instinctively went left. The first door I came to  simply had a question mark lettered on the frosted door glass.

I knocked. No answer. I tried the door handle and the door opened, pulling me through. Honest. The door closed behind me. The lettering on the door glass now read “Ministry of Madness,” only backwards. I blinked and the door was gone. I swear that’s how it happened, how I came to find myself in the waiting room of the Ministry of Madness.

I was not alone. A slack-faced angel (halo and all) shared the couch beneath the clock with a smiling alligator in a three-piece suit, and the Knave of Hearts, just like in the card deck. The hands on the clock moved rapidly in opposite directions. The walls were hairy and seemed to breathe. Mad Muzac leaked from unseen speakers. There was no door in sight.

“Would you kindly stop bombarding me with your Zenoid death rays?” the alligator asked politely. The angel giggled, drooling. The Knave mumbled something about a strawberry festival. “Take a number,” said a dwarf with teeth like knives, who was standing beside a water cooler filled with what appeared to be blood. “Or, better yet, have some pomegranate seeds.” Next to him, in a straight-backed chair, sat a little old lady dressed in black. Antlers protruded from her bonnet. She was knitting what looked like a shroud.

“But I don’t want a number! You see, I came in by mistake. I don’t want to be seen; I just want to find the exit!”

There was a moment of silence, and all eyes were on me. Then they began to chortle, cackle, howl, giggle – each adding to a cacophony of mad mirth. “By mistake!” roared the alligator. “No one comes here by mistake. You come by appointment!”

“If you don’t want to be seen,” howled the dwarf, “then disappear!”

“Find the exit?” cackled the horned granny.

“STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL!” roared the Knave, rising and advancing. He grabbed me by my collars and sputtered in my face, “Electricity is leaking from the wall sockets, causing sundry puppet mutations! Tidal slime emanations curdle imminent remedies! Noisome machine holograms cloud the aether with flux vibrations! And all you care about is your crusty CONSENSUS REALITY! Your Living Theatre! You think that’s where you’ll find your precious Secret?”

Either I or the room began to fade. “You know the secret?” I implored.

“Paf!” said Auntie Antlers.

“See you later,” intoned the ‘gator.

“Take a number, any number,” sneered the dwarf.

“Now that you know where to come, don’t be a stranger.” The vacant-eyed angel beckoned seductively.

And I found myself back in the Land of Laws, the Living Theatre, standing in the sterile street, still bereft of Meaning, all madness faded into the mundane.

It was on a Monday.

At the Secretariat of Salvation

Here is Part Three (of Seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

Still stymied in my search for the Secret, I stumbled into the Secretariat of Salvation. I had been wandering along Church Street, without a clue; and there, where Church meets State Street, it was. I walked onto the grounds through the pearly gates and entered the temple, thinking “perhaps it’s salvation that I’ve been seeking, for I am surely lost.”

It was easy to tell who was on the staff and who was not: the clerks were all garbed in black robes, solemnly bustling about in the labyrinth of partitioned workspaces that filled the vast, high-ceilinged chamber. I walked over to the Information counter and  “ahem”ed to get the attention of the robed clerk, who  was reading from a massive black-bound tome. He looked up, annoyed at my interruption.

“Uh, good book you’re reading there?” I asked.

“The best book. How, pray, may I be of service?”

“Well – you see, I’m trying to find the Great Secret, and I wondered -”

“There is no Great Secret! It’s all in The Book, as you would already know, if your parents had raised you right.”

“Um, salvation, then. How do I find salvation?”

“Naturally, by doing every day, in every way, that which pleaseth God.”

“But how can I know what will please . . . Him? Or is it Her?”

“HIM, infidel! Look, it’s all in The Book. Haven’t you heard of the Many Musts?” He proceeded to recite some from memory. “Thou must, perforce, address God by His True and Proper Name, which is ‘I Yam What I Yam.’ Thou must, perforce, worship God through His designated representatives, and give them money. Thou must, perforce, love God, no matter what He does to you.”

“Ah, pardon me, but how do I know who I’m to trust as His designated representatives, to help me find salvation. . . and who  I’m to give the money to, of course?”

“By their robes of Holy Office shall ye know them.”

“Okay, I think I have the first two down;  but about that third Must . . . I don’t understand. How can anybody command love? It seems to me that love is . . . a spontaneous response. Or a gift. I mean, you either feel it or you don’t. You can’t make yourself love . . . right?”

The clerk’s face reddened. “Thou treadeth on the border of heresy, Bub. We are talking about GOD, not just some vile sinner like yourself! If it says in His Book that you’d better love him, or suffer eternal torment, you’d just better love Him!”

“Okay, okay, I hear you. But . . . but if I’m a sinner – and I’m not suggesting that I’m not – how am I to know what is a sin?”

The clerk sighed. “Verily thou art enough to try the patience of Mope, son of Rube, whom God didst sorely test. I tell you, it’s all in The Book! 100% of the Truth. Everything, all here!” The thumped his copy for emphasis.

“But I’m still confused. It seems to me that the only real truth we can know is in our direct experience of the world. Anything we say or write about it only reflects the truth, it doesn’t contain it. It can’t. Right?”

The clerk’s eyes narrowed to slits. His voice was gravelly with emotion. “Bubba, are you saying that you know more about the Truth than GOD? Now, why would He have gone to all the trouble of dictating The Book to his holy ghost writers if just any poor shlub, such as yourself, could figure out the Truth for his own damned self?!”

“I . . . guess I see your point,” I said, although I really didn’t. I was getting a headache, like you get from thinking too long about where the universe ends. “Thanks for all your help.”

I turned and walked away, the clerk’s reflexive “God bless you” echoing hollowly in the huge high holy hall.

 

At the Secrecy Secretariat

Here is the second episode (of seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

Every time I inquired as to the location of the Secrecy Secretariat I got the same answer: it’s a secret. Burning, as I was, for knowledge of the Great Secret, I thought to start with smaller secrets and work my way up. I spent days feverishly searching the massive edifices that line Secretariat Street. Exhausted, almost ready to give up, I suddenly saw the sign on the door at the end of an endless corridor. The door was, of course, locked. No keyhole.

When I knocked, a voice responded, “What’s the password?” Defeated, I turned and walked away. Halfway down the corridor, I turned and strode back to the door, a desperate ploy in mind. I shouted “What’s the password?” The voice responded “It’s a secret!” Dejected and hopeless, I left.

All that night I racked my brain for a key to the door with no keyhole. Near dawn I finally drifted into sleep, then immediately came awake with (what I felt sure to be) the answer in mind. Soon after dawn I approached the door semi-confidently, and knocked. “What’s the password?” came the voice. “It’s a secret.” The door opened with a click.

At a desk before me sat a secretary, a woman who looked so extraordinarily ordinary that I knew I’d never recognize her in a crowd. “May I help you?” she asked helpfully. “You certainly may . . . if you can tell me, firstly, what sort of secrets you keep here, and  . . . why.” She looked at me as if at a stupid child. “Even if I knew any secrets, I wouldn’t go around telling people I knew them, now would I?” “Not even . . . secretly?” “Especially not secretly. One wouldn’t acquire secrets from the Secrecy Secretariat, now would one? One supposes one would give secrets to said Secretariat.” And she smiled her secretive smile.

“And if I were to, ah, tell you a secret . . . what would be done with it?” “That’s a secret.”  “Ah. Well, if you can’t tell me any secrets, perhaps you could direct me to someone who could.” “Even if I knew, ” she replied with mounting ire, “I couldn’t tell you!” “Um, but who do you think might be able to help me out? I mean, if you don’t know, it wouldn’t be like telling me a secret, right?” “Well, I should think perhaps the Secretary of Secrecy, but how should I know? I’m only the Secretary’s secretary.” “Well, might I speak to the Secretary, then?” “You might if you knew where his – or her –  office was, but –” “It’s a secret, I know.” “Precisely.”

I decided to try one more time. “Now, strictly speculation you understand; but if you were, in fact, the Secretary of Secrecy rather than the Secretary’s secretary, might you try to pass yourself off as your own secretary?” The glint in her ordinary eyes told me I’d gotten as far as I’d get here (precisely nowhere), even though I now knew that I’d been conversing with an entire Secretariat. We both said “It’s s secret” in unison and I left, secretly appreciating the Secretariat’s success at sustaining superb secrecy.

 

 

At the Ministry of Meaning

For the next few weeks my blog will feature a fictional work in seven “chapters” that I call The Ministry Series. It’s both a Kafkaesque “Grail Quest” and a social satire, set in Centre City. I wrote it while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kingston, Jamaica which, being the capital city, is rife with Ministries, Bureaus, Secretariats and such. Among my literary influences were Franz Kafka (content), J. P. Donleavy (style), and Terry Gilliam’s movies, “Brazil” and “The Fisher King.”

 

Call me K.  I live in Centre City, the capital of Homeland, and always have. I have lived alone for as long as I can remember. I suppose I once had a family, but I’ve lost touch. The city, you see, is vast; and the desperate press and bustle of commerce and government regulation, the mass of faces that I pass in the streets, in the hallways, have somehow eroded my memory. I had friends once, I’m sure of that. And I must have had a job, although I haven’t gone to work for as long as I can remember. I forget how long I can remember.

But for as long as that is, I’ve been occupied – preoccupied you might say – with but one thing: finding the Great Secret, thereby recovering the Meaning that my life once surely had. I know there is a Great Secret, I feel it. There is a Hidden Tradition, and I know I’m not the first to seek it. I even found a book titled The Great Secret. It was blank.

So every day, a dog on the trail of Truth, I haunt the huge hives that house the bureaus, the directorates, the secretariats and the ministries that are the skeleton of our civilization. How do I live? Through some bureaucratic error I get a check every month, issued by the Ministry of Mystery; so maybe I used to work there. Only . . . I can find no evidence that there is, or ever has been, a Ministry of Mystery.

When I first realized that I had lost my Meaning, and set out on my solitary search through the labyrinth of government agencies to find it, the Ministry of Meaning was a logical first stop. I found the address in the Directory of Directorates, Bureaus, Ministries and Secretariats, and got there an hour before closing time. There were few ahead of me in the waiting area, and it wasn’t long before one of the several clerks at the long, partitioned service counter said “Next,” meaning me. I stepped up to the counter and looked the young clerk in his empty eyes.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “I’ve, um, sort of lost the Meaning in my life, or maybe forgotten it, more like. It’s really rather discouraging, and I . . . I wondered if you could, ah, help me. Please?”

“Life,” the clerk said lifelessly. “L. Volume 12.” So saying, he turned in his swivel chair and ran a finger down the spines of a row of numbered books on a shelf behind the counter, then swiveled back, Volume 12 of the Meaning Manual in hand. He opened it, riffled through the pages, then ran his finger down a column of headings. Every fourth or fifth heading he read aloud, “da-dum, da-dum” ing his way through the interim items.

“Labels. . . labor . . . lachrymation. . . lamentation. . . literalism. . . laughter. . . laxity. . . leadership. . . learning. . . legendry. . . lemming migration. . . levity. . . liability. . . libel. . . liberalism. . . lies. . . (da-dum, da-dum, etc.) limitations.” He looked up. “I’m sorry, sir. There’s no meaning listed for ‘life’.”

“But. . . surely life has to mean something!”

“Not necessarily; not according to the manual.” He smiled blankly and tried not to sound condescending. “Look. Surely you wouldn’t suggest that everything has to mean something. We here at the Ministry take it as a given that some things just are. I mean, does every stone or star have to mean something?”

“But. . . how about you? Doesn’t life mean anything to you?”

“Nothing comes to mind, sir.”

“But, I mean, um, hasn’t anyone else ever come here and asked about the Meaning of life?”

“Not that I recall, sir.”

I was desperate. “Ah, now you must know a lot about Meaning, since you work here. Just speculation, now – if life did have a meaning, what do you think it might be?”

“That would just be meaningless speculation, sir. If life had meaning, it would be in the manual, now wouldn’t it. And I’m not a Licensed Philosopher. We do, however, have one on the staff. In the Consumer Relations Department.”

“No, thank you. One more question, then I won’t trouble you any longer. Have you ever heard of the Great Secret?”

“No, I’m sure I’ve never. I suggest that you consult the Secretariat of Secrecy.”

I thanked him and left, musing over mankind’s manifest meaninglessness, alone as a soul-less stone.

Authenticity and congruence

This a continuation of my last post, “How to be more like you,” in which I wrote about phoniness vs. authenticity. Most of us come by the inauthenticity that Fritz Perls described as phoniness quite  honestly, via the process of socialization. As children, we learn from the adult role models in our lives, and we’re often taught to be inauthentic. The template for prescribed phony behavior might be “politeness,” or religion, or social expectations about “correct  behavior” or even “correct feelings.” I’ve known people who were abused and/or  neglected by their parents who still, as adults, felt guilty about not loving them the way they “should.” Many children are taught who they are “supposed to” love, from grandpa to God. Genuine love can’t be forced.

A kiss that is anything other than an expression of affection or love or sexual passion is a phony kiss. Jane may not have even liked Aunt Sadie, but her parents taught her to give her a kiss anyway, whenever she visited. Children are often given admonitions such as: “Don’t cry! You’re a boy!” and “Don’t you get angry at me, young lady!” and “Of course you love him; he’s your grandfather!”

Some people have jobs that require them to act cheerful, no matter what they’re really feeling. Behavior arising from authentic feelings might be judged by others as impolite or inappropriate in certain situations. We’ve all been in circumstances where we felt the need to hide our true feelings; but some people go through life feeling that way every day. They have their reasons.

Con men, sociopaths and bullshitters are purposefully inauthentic. Others have learned to habitually cover up their true feelings; it’s their default mode. One of the ways I would confront a client who was putting on an act in therapy was, “You’re always on stage, aren’t you?” The look in their eyes (busted!) told me that I was on target, and that this was something they needed to know that other people could see through. People whose default mode is authenticity know themselves better than people who constantly put on an act to win approval. They are also more secure and self-accepting. I know this from personal experience, as I used to be a people pleaser, myself. My phoniness arose from feelings of insecurity.

A related concept that was important to me as a therapist was congruence. There are two kinds of congruence. One has to do with they way you come across when communicating. If someone being threatened says to his antagonist, “You don’t scare me” in a soft, tremulous voice, with body language that indicates fear, his verbal message won’t be believed. It’s incongruent with his other modes of communication. If someone says “I’M NOT ANGRY!” loudly, with fists clenched and an aggressive posture, he’s giving incongruent messages. When a person’s words are matched by her vocal tone, facial expression and body language, her message is congruent. People who are seen as charismatic are highly congruent communicators.

As a therapist with training in gestalt theory, I became very good at spotting subtle incongruities in therapy. In gestalt therapy, incongruent messages get challenged by the therapist. If a client claims (incongruently) that it really doesn’t bother her when her husband calls her stupid, the therapist might ask her to say the opposite: “It really bothers me when my husband calls me stupid!” (“But it really doesn’t bother me!” “Try saying it anyway.”) This technique is very effective in getting clients to recognize their true feelings, which often rise to the surface as the client repeats the opposite of their initial rationalized statement.

The other kind of congruence is role congruence. Do you act like a different person in your different life roles, or would family members and close friends recognize you as the same person they know, if they saw you at work? Obviously, some jobs – like a drill sergeant at a military boot camp – require you to take on a badass role that is (one hopes) incongruent with how he behaves in other situations. But under most circumstances a congruent person is recognizably the same person as a worker, a spouse, a parent and a friend. Incongruent persons are role-bound, and might be a tyrant at home and a reasonable person at work – or the other way around. Congruent people are authentically themselves in all the roles in their lives.

The intrinsic reward for being yourself – warts and all – is that when people who know you give you messages (feedback) about who you are, they’re revealing the things you need to hear, to be self-aware. I’ve written before about the paradox of identity. You can’t have self-knowledge in a social vacuum. We need other people who know us, in order to know who we “really are.” They’ll tell us, and if there’s some disagreement, it’s all grist for the mill. A consensus will emerge over time about who you are.

If you were living alone on a desert island, like Robinson Crusoe, how could you possibly know what kind of person you are. How could you know if you’re generous or stingy, witty or dull? We depend on other people in our lives to have an accurate sense of our own identity. Being authentic and congruent helps us to know who we really are, and what we might like to change about who we are.

Your “self” is either a rigid construct – “that’s just who I am!” – or a work in progress. Whatever your age.

 

How to be more like you

My title for this post is ironic. How could I possibly know who you are or how you should be “more yourself”?  But surely you’ve known some people who sincerely believed that the world would be a better place if other people were “more like them.” When people think this way, they are probably not  referencing the “self'” that is known to others – warts and all –  but rather an idealized, cherished self-image. I believe that all of us have a cherished self-image that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the consensus image of ourselves as others know us. When you hear someone say something about you and your reaction is “I’m not like that!”, you’ve probably identified a piece of your cherished self-image.

Attachment to this cherished self-image is especially strong in people who have tried throughout their lives to live up to others’ expectations of them – parents or extended parental entities  such as church and culture. Many of us are taught how we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel in this or that situation. This attachment can also be strong in people who have tried hard to shape themselves in reaction to “parental” expectations, i.e. “I refuse to be who my parents (or the church or the State) want me to be.” I’ve known quite a few parents whose cherished self-images kept them from seeing that they were dealing with their own children in just the same dysfunctional ways that their own parents had dealt with them. When you’ve sworn to yourself, “I’ll never do that with my children,” it’s often hard to recognize when you do.

Each of us – even those with low self-esteem – is the hero of our own personal drama, because we all live at the center of our perceived world, and none of us can be completely objective about ourselves. Our “heroic self” may wear the mask of the conquering hero or the rescuer or the wronged victim. But this heroic self is just as much an artificial construct as any image of ourselves projected onto us by others. I remember an epiphany I had as a young man. Seeing my reflection in a mirror, I thought “That’s who they think I am!”

One’s true self isn’t a thing, fixed and immutable, but is best seen as an evolutionary process, a work in progress. Buckminster Fuller put it this way: “I seem to be a verb.” Rather than trying to nail down some finished portrait of one’s self, I think that it is more helpful to have a picture in mind of who you are today, in the here-and-now of your experience and behavior. Your actions, not your thoughts, ultimately define you as the unique person you are.

A concept that was important to me as a psychotherapist was authenticity. In studying gestalt therapy in grad school, I became aware that many of my habitual behaviors were what gestalt guru Fritz Perls called “phony.” I was a people pleaser, always trying to guess what was expected of me in each situation and to behave in ways  that were attempts to please or impress the people around me. I realized that I wanted everyone to like me – even if I didn’t especially like them. But, to the extent that I was phony, if someone seemed to like me, what they liked was my act, not me.

I knew that if I was going to be a good therapist, I had to become more spontaneous and authentic – even if that meant that some people wouldn’t like me or approve of my actions. I stopped making phony excuses for myself, like saying “I really have to leave now,” when I really just wanted to leave. I stopped rehearsing for social occasions such as parties. I learned to walk into a roomful of people with an “empty mind,” primed for spontaneity. I wanted to get to know the person behind the masks that I wore. Some people may have seen me as blunt or curt, or even rude, as I worked on becoming “more myself.” I knew that not everyone liked me, and that was okay. The work that I did on myself enabled me to help therapy clients to identify and confront their own inauthentic behaviors, and to work on changing them.

Gestalt therapy is especially effective for working with people who want to discover their authentic selves. Some gestalt techniques (which I described in a prior post) serve to unmask phony roles that people play, leaving them bereft of their usual defenses, and open to sudden insights. Fritz Perls is perhaps best known for what is called the Gestalt Prayer: ” I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find one another, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.”

More about authenticity, and the related concept of congruence, in my next post.