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Things That Are Not Things That Are

plectostoma sciaphilum
This is the part about things
Looking back on myself now, I am amazed at the ease with which I spoke of some things. To speak of any thing at all (as if things are things-that-are) is increasingly an absurdity. But all this absurdity is pragmatic. Names are lies and violence and beyond any imaginable bounds of belief or justification, but we name everything (every thing, too, is a name – even if names are also not things-that-are) and so we are able to continue to maximize our efficiency in waking and sleeping and working and paying off credit card bills and taxes and fines and drug dealers (pharmacists?) and everyone else who takes the money for which we are trading our lives. Language may be ideology and fiction, but it works. And I may also be ideology and fiction but I work, too – pretty much everything is structured to ensure that I do. And if I don’t, don’t worry, there are employment resource centres and shelters and social workers to punish me (support me?) for as long as I’m unemployed and to try their damnedest to get me back to living in order to work for money as soon as possible.
Ten years from now, if this fiction that I lie about and name “my life” or “myself” is still being written (as if it is being written, as if it’s a text, as if there’s an author, as if it is, as if I am an I-that-am), I imagine I’ll look back at all of this and be amazed at the ease with which I spoke of it.

This is the part about God and prayer
What are these things (these things-that-are-not) of which I used to speak with ease? They were things like justice, and forgiveness, and grace. Oh, and God. God, too, was a word, a name, I mentioned a lot. I thought God was the kind of thing that could be believed in. I don’t think so anymore. Which is not to say that I don’t believe in God or am undecided about God. I just don’t think God is the kind of thing in which one can believe. I find it hard to explain this, even though it’s not so hard to experience it (try explaining any experience… you might end up with Proust’s Search or Knausgaard’s Struggle). It feels like a certain kind of apophaticism or via negativa… but what kind exactly is hard to say (too cool or unique to be comfortable with the big three brands – theist, atheist, agnostic – perhaps this could be termed hipster apophaticism?).
When I did think God was a thing to be believed in, I used to pray. Or, rather, I would form words and try to talk with God. Or I would try not to form words and listen for words from God (John 1: “In the beginning was the Word…” which really just means that every thing starts with ideology). At that time, I sometimes used to wonder about an injunction written by Paul to the Thessalonians: “pray without ceasing.” How can it be possible to pray without ceasing? There are other people with whom one will talk, and to whom one should listen, and there are a lot of other words and names and things going on here. So I struggled to understand this injunction. I thought maybe unceasing prayer meant “practicing the presence of God,” which is to say, living in a manner that deliberately recalls God’s presence with us everywhere all the time, but I found that a little difficult. I wasn’t a monk (although I almost was once) but Paul wasn’t a monk either. Maybe he was just being hyperbolic? Lord knows, he is in other passages.
It was only after I realized – in a very personal and existential manner – something of the depths of what might be called our godforsakenness that I realized I was praying without ceasing. In those days, in every waking moment, there was a screaming in my heart. An unending weeping, a relentless sobbing that I carried inside of me, all those days and nights when I refused to cry with my eyes or scream with my mouth because I didn’t know if I would be able to stop once I started. This was a new way of being for me. It was a being-that-had-ceased-to-be-and-yet-remained. It was a being-that-was-a-crying-out. And there was no respite. What was this being but a becoming unceasing prayer? It was being as a prayer to a God who wasn’t there for us (and me, too, not there for me), a plea to a friend who never arrived in time (too late for me, too), a call to a savior who does not save us (and me, too, I was not saved), a supplication to a healer who does not heal us (and me, too, I was not healed).
Sometimes I think it’s ironic, sometimes amusing, sometimes sad, to discover that I finally learned to pray without ceasing, precisely at the time when prayer ceased to matter.
But knowing prayer doesn’t matter does not cause me to cease being a being-that-is-a-crying-out. Although, more often than ever these days, the cries include gasps of joy, feelings of gratitude, and the kind of laughter wonder inspires (I appear to have gone from being the living dead to being the living dead). Not that I think these cries are directed at some thing called God. I often don’t know where they are directed or if that question even matters all that much. What I do know – existentially more than conceptually – is that I am a crying out—a crying out without words to no( )thing that can be named.
I do sometimes, however, pray with words to Gods. I understand this to be an act of friendship. Many of my friends still believe in a God of one kind or another. When these friends are going through hard times, I will pray to their Gods on their behalf. They believe that these Gods listen to our words when we address our words to Them, and they believe it is important to say these words, so I might as well do that on their behalf. It’s the least that I can do. I have spent too many years trying to selfishly die to myself. Now that I’m dead (but living!), it’s about time I learned to be a good and faithful friend.
(Tangentially, I should note that I don’t find it hard to pray to Gods I don’t believe in, just like I don’t find it hard to perform a gender I don’t believe in, or use money I don’t believe in, or work for an institution I don’t believe in. Don’t mistake this for strength of character. Read it as a marker or privilege… and not the good kind of privilege. It is the blood-stained kind.)
This is an interjection about things again
But my oh my, look at all these words. Look at how fluently I speak of that which I can no longer speak of with ease (or perhaps at all?). How easy it is to create some thing out of no( )thing. You can do it, too. Just open your mouth and speak.
So let’s pause to remember that while the some thing may be true, it is the no( )thing that is real.
This is the part about grace and love
It’s somewhat odd to mourn the loss of that which never was, all these surreal truths and names that play like beautiful songs in our hearts. All these things like God and justice and freedom and forgiveness and grace. Well, maybe I don’t mourn the loss of grace. I think grace is a misunderstanding – an effort to locate love within the boundaries of an economics of judgement, evaluation (or valourisation) and condemnation. Grace is trumping the Ace of the other team (whatever is the agent of condemnation – the Law, God’s wrath, the Prosecutor, your parents). But, as a move within that game, grace remains a problem because it presupposes the whole economics of judgement and affirms its validity, even as it offers you a way out of it. Grace says, “yes, you really are a piece of shit but I’m going to treat you as if you are not!” or “You deserve to die, but I’m going to permit you to live!” And, maybe, adding on to that, “And give you a fresh chance to be something else that is not a piece of shit or that does not deserve to die!” This is then referred to as love. And every slave who escapes a whipping (who deserved to be whipped but wasn’t), and every child who escapes a beating (who deserved to be beaten but wasn’t), and every woman who escapes an assault (who deserved to be assaulted but wasn’t), and every panhandler who escapes a ticket (who deserved to be ticketed but wasn’t), and every sinner who escapes from hell (who deserved to be burnt alive for all eternity but wasn’t), and every deer who escapes the wolves (who deserved to be eaten but wasn’t), says, “thank you, thank you, thank you for loving me so deeply!” before spontaneously bursting into a round of “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
I don’t think this is love. Grace is a powerplay. It’s a move made by patrons, and billionaires, and Presidents, and philanthropists, and Gods. It’s a strategic way to engage the vanquished. A practice as old as Rome itself. As Petronius observed: “the victor is merciful when the fight is ended.” Tacitus adds, it is only “the stubbornness of inferiors which lessens the clemency of our ruler[s]”. But it is Seneca who best lays out how intertwined grace is with the economics of judgment and condemnation:

pardon should not be exercised in an unthinking way; for once the distinction between bad men and good is removed, what follows is confusion and the outbreak of vice; accordingly a wise restraint should be shown, such as is capable of distinguishing between curable characters and ones past hope. The mercy we exercise ought not to be indiscriminate and for all and sundry but it should not be withheld completely; for pardoning all involves no less cruelty than pardoning none.

It’s up for debate how well Nero followed Seneca’s advice. Augustus, an early son of a God, set a pretty high bar when it came to graciousness. Who can be so gracious as the rich? (Augustus: “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”) Measured in dollars and cents, nobody can come close to what they do. So, respond how you like to grace – Ave Caesar, Praise God (Heil Hitler??) – just remember that there’s little difference between these parties when it comes to replacing love with an economics of judgment and condemnation that can only be superseded by the appropriate authorities.
Love is neither grace nor graciousness. There is no condemnation in love. This does not mean that love transcends any pre-existing (and legitimate) condemnation – it means that all condemnations no longer make any sense within the context of love. It is, in other words, available indiscriminately to all and sundry. Condemnation, and the economics of judgment are literally non-sense in the space inhabited by those who are in love. Condemnation, judgment, evaluation, comparison, all these things lose their legitimacy in this space. They belong to a different world. They cease to be. In this regard, love is beyond good and evil. Only it does not appear in the form of a superman who goes forth and conquers but, rather, as the corpse of a terrorist, risen from the grave with her hands and feet still blown apart, returning on bleeding stumps to embrace (and be embraced by) those she loved and who loved her.
This is the part about justice and forgiveness
But justice, where does this leave justice? Don’t we all long for a just world? A world where wrongs can be made right? A world where each gives according to his or her ability and receives according to his or her need? A world where we all can, like Erik Prince, “sleep the sleep of the just”? It’s such a beautiful idea. It is a name that resonates with a longing deep inside our hearts and so it is a sad, sad day when we realize that justice never was, justice never will be, justice never can be, and justice is not.
What does justice look like for a daughter who loses her father to an unexpected illness when she is at a vulnerable time in life? What does justice look like for the Afghani wedding party bombed by American drones? What does justice look like for the girl whose father sells her to his friends every night for beer money? What does justice look like to a boy who goes in and out of state care because his mother is in jail for trying to kill his stepfather, because his stepfather molested him? What does justice look like for the Athabaska river delta as it is poisoned to death by the Canadian government and Big Oil in the tar sands? What does justice look like for plectostoma sciaphilum (a species of snail that lived entirely on one hill in Malayasia – a cement company wiped them all out in 2014), or the Madagascan Dwarf Hippopotamus, or the Paradise Parrot, or all the other species we have made extinct? What does justice look to those who died in the showers at Auschwitz? What does it look like to those who survived the camps? What does justice look like for those who have survived the ongoing North American holocaust of Inidigenous peoples?
Spend enough time trying to fight against injustice and you will realize this: some things cannot be made right. Perhaps those of us who continue to live can learn to survive, perhaps we can even learn to make our current situation a little more bearable than it was before, but this is not justice. Justice is a dream from which I have awoken.
We are all born innocent. We are all broken by others before we have a chance to be anything else. Then, those of us who live, continue on as survivors. But once Pandora’s box has been opened, that which departs from it cannot fit back in, just like the bowels removed from my brother’s body will never fit back in, and the baby who never became a child – the baby with a hole in his heart who didn’t survive the surgery after he was born – will never fit back into the hole left in his parents lives. We survive, but we are other than we would have been. We survive, but we limp, or take pills to help us sleep, or are afraid to be alone, or find ourselves throwing up walls between ourselves and other people in order to try avoiding getting hurt again. We survive but our brains and bodies and immune systems don’t develop as they might have otherwise. Thus, between the innocent and the survivor and chasm opens and once we cross it (from innocent to survivor) the bridge collapses (the problem is that we do not know we are on the bridge until we have crossed it).
Forgiveness, of course, cannot take us back, it cannot make us new, and it cannot make things right. But this is not what some of it’s most powerful advocates claim it can do (I’m thinking of people like Desmond Tutu or Miroslav Volf). Forgiveness is not about going back to how we once were, it is about going forward to someplace better than we are now. It cannot make things right – it tries to make things right enough. It tries to make survival tomorrow less painful than survival today.
That’s nice and important and we all have to find our own ways here… it’s just not all I believed it would be. Do you know what I mean? Do you remember (who remembers the stories that pass before our eyes anymore, as we crash from one crisis or disaster or security threat or new iphone to the next?), a few years ago, an eleven year old girl was gang-raped in Sikar, Rajasthan. Regardless of whether or not she forgives the eight men who did this to her, she still needed over twenty surgeries, including multiple reconstructive surgeries, in order to survive.
And this just speaks of those who survive. What forgiveness is possible from the dead? In the context of a murder, a genocide, an extinction, where might forgiveness find a place?
So it goes with forgiveness. It is not what we thought it was. Perhaps it’s also no( )thing at all. Just like you and me and everything else (all these things-that-are-not) it can be pragmatic. If it works for you, use it. If not, forget about it. And do the same with me. Although, one way or another, I need to get paid.
This is the unsatisfactory conclusion
I was really meaning to wrap things up here by returning to my question of love and how being beyond good and evil might fit within a world that is not beyond good and evil, where justice is impossible and forgiveness is a disappointment. But I’ve said enough already about that which I can no longer speak with ease (by now I reckon your questioning the reliability of this narrator but, spoiler alert, all narrators are unreliable). Instead, I offer one final story as something of a tl;dnr version of everything that I wrote here.
When I worked at a camp for rich Evangelical kids there was a popular camp song we used to sing with the kids. It was a “call and response” song and it involved a lot of stomping feet and forming lines with your arms around the person beside you. The opening and closing verses went like this:
Leaders: “Let me see your boogaloo!”
Participants: “What’s that you say?”
Participants: “WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY?”
Leaders and Participants [twitching in various ways]: “OOOO AAAAH OO OO AH. OOOO AAAAH OO OO AH—Back in line!”
So here’s my boogaloo. And now that you’ve seen it, I’m done twitching and talking about things-that-are-not-things-that-are. I’m off to hug a tree.
Back in line.

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  1. Again, much admirable writing Dan M/O, i’m glad you still take the time to write here. I had a hard time reading it the first time, I had just spent 8 days in the hospital with our daughter (who is doing better now, thanks…). In the meantime there was another mass-shooting in usamerica. Perhaps my favorite part, “Forgiveness is not about going back to how we once were, it is about going forward to someplace better than we are now. It cannot make things right – it tries to make things right enough. It tries to make survival tomorrow less painful than survival today.” I have noticed more and more the phrase “ending extreme poverty.” I am afraid that means that we’all have given up on ending poverty and the project has now been scaled back to just help folks transition from *extreme* poverty into regular ole poverty? I’m not sure that I would call that “making things right enough.” The Pope has left town though, I’m happy to see him and happy to see him go (he probably stayed one day too long). I am trying to paint horses but I don’t know any. I have learned something of love and grace from my dog (but I won’t test that by not feeding him). I think I might learn something of forgiveness from horses. I am looking for a horse to start a relationship with but its hard to find one. Animal experts keep asserting that dogs/wolves, horses/other wild-animals can read our hearts and minds and sense fear and threats. I think this may be so, but I wonder if its a talent they learned in the same way that children living in abusive homes learn to be hyper-vigilant and alert to the slightest changes in movement or temperament of potential abusers. Why else’s would 1000 lb Grizzly bears flee form people in terror 9999 out of a 10000 times? Still, I would never forgive the bear who harmed one of my children, I would kill it and thank god for its death. I am reading one of Ingmar Bergman’s auto-bios and working my way through his movies again. I admit that I do not like or respect the man at all. I don’t think that his films are that great either, but for much of the time everyone else’s were just so much worse. He is very honest about his sins and failures though, however he is a good writer and so he lies and hides himself even as he confesses, like we all do I reckon. He holds his beliefs with great conviction and passion, but soon gets bored and changes his mind on a Kronig. The new doc. “Bergman’s Island” is quite enthralling. He lists his 5 greatest demons (I think he misses a dozen or more but heck most of us don’t even see any!). The ending was quite surprising but then again who couldn’t see that coming? Obama is on TV and there is useless yet zealous talk of “gun-control.” He seems really shook-up and un-settled by these particular school massacres, makes you wonder. But Bergman was 6 when he tried to murder his sister, he confesses the whole thing, he tried to smother her out of jealously! That’s how I feel sometimes when I watch his movies. Shalom.

    • I have also been thinking about all this talk about ending or curing or solving poverty. It sounds a lot like Duncan Campbell Scott’s “final solution” to “the Indian problem” or Goring’s “final solution” to “the Jewish problem” (and the Nazis were inspired by our treatment of Indigenous folks, as we both know). It makes me suspect that it’s not so much poverty that will die as people experiencing poverty.