The Experience of Being Alive

Chapter 12 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, available on Amazon and B&N.

TheWriter_CoverPJ produced a new piece about intuition. “As you know, I’ve made a study in quest of the meaning of the word: intuition. And I came to understand that it begins in childhood unconsciously, and it is a totally unconscious process; nobody knows anything about it. In other words you’re in a situation and the issue is stated and right away your reaction is instant, and positive. But people can spend the rest of their lives trying to rationalize what they did. Did I explain that clearly?”

“You do,” I said. “Very well.”

PJ’s new definition of “intuition” as integral to human motivation and behavior interested me. He showed its operation in his own life in The Writer.

At thirty one, the young artist made a decision, known to him at the time but unknown during an interim of years until the writer reminded him of it. At that early age, when most young men are seeking a profession which will pay them well, the young man determined that he would never again work for money.

He lived by that resolution, too, while in the competitive society in which he found himself. He did later work on salary. But that was for bread, the landlord and the utilities. He lived to learn that there is no money in living “for the joy of it.”

Then youth to old age, with intuitive perception, he lived for the experience of being alive.

“This phrase, intuitive perception,” I said to PJ, “how can that work with your new concept of intuition?”

***

In the church’s front office, I picked up a book, Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. He summarized Kierkegaard’s “lie of character” as being “built up because the child needs to adjust to the world, to the parents, and to his own existential dilemmas.”

Not very specific, but it was a summary after all. Becker went on, “It is built up before the child has a chance to learn about himself in an open or free way, and thus character defenses are automatic and unconscious.” Then the person “becomes dependent on them and comes to be encased in his own prison, and into himself … and the defenses he is using, the things that are determining his unfreedom.”

Isak Dinesen, though, said there are ways to escape this prison, this slavery to the accreted self, and create one’s self anew and form new identities at will.

PJ felt he had been forced to create new identities. In each identity he found “a clean slate.” Studying his own identity, he began to think about the adjustments children make.

“Now, presume that a child begins life innocent and amiable and feels no guilt,” he said, “until the first time someone punishes him. Then the child feels anger and guilt. Although later, he may learn to mask hostility with an amiable appearance, there will never be a time of complete amiability again. The hostility may be disguised so well that the person does not know he experiences it himself.”

“So the cause of hostility,” I said, “is that rebuke to your innocence.”

Yes, he nodded.

“Isn’t there one more ‘station’ between impulse and action?” I quoted Voltaire: “’I believe that with the slightest shift in my character, there is no crime I could not commit.’”

He smiled. There was a last stage one’s reactions go through, he said. “You see, character gives a temper point, having something to think about, argue about.”

I liked the way PJ’s theories were specific and not sterile, incorporating emotions such as love and anger, and the palpable senses of guilt and innocence.

Intuition

Chapter 10 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press

PJ was wearing a tan turtleneck sweater and peaked white hat, álà Vincent Van Gogh. We seized an empty bench in Washington Square Park. Nearby, a woman had spread a blanket. Her older son was playing at the fountain’s edge and the younger one was crawling on the blanket toward him. The little one reached out and picked up a piece of broken glass.

His mother grabbed him and slapped his hand. The glass fell to the sidewalk and the boy screamed with rage as she placed him back on the blanket.

PJ acted as if he had seen nothing, but I felt him recoil when the child screamed. “That child was amiable when he was born,” PJ said after a moment. “He felt no guilt. Until someone slapped his hand and said, No, don’t do that. And he felt hostility for the first time.”

“He is angry,” I replied. “But he shouldn’t pick up glass.”

“Better that he is angry at the glass if he gets cut.”

The older boy came running to see what happened. He taunted his screaming brother and gave him a shove.

“You sit down,” the mother shouted. “Both of you behave.”

“Hostility is punished,” PJ observed. “He will learn to mask it with amiability. A laugh or a smile, a joke or a flattering word. After this, there will never be a time of complete amiability again.”

The mother and children were leaving and we watched them pass by the bench.

“The little one is beginning to make up his own intuitive program. He builds up an unconscious memory bank of positive and negative experiences. You see, now that we have computers, it can be compared to a computer, because the programmer puts in what can be taken out. And soon, we act and react with either amiability or hostility to any situation. It’s just—” He snapped his fingers, “yes or no, pro or con.”

“We react positively or negatively,” I said.

“If a child’s experiences evoke hostility and guilt for the most part, then the intuitive actions and reactions may become more often hostile than amiable.”

“I can see that.” And vice versa. Amiability: that was a desirable goal.

“And it’s already done before we know it. Most of us rationalize it afterward, even if it’s not necessary.” He smiled. “We may even come up with the right reason.” Then, reflectively, “We can’t bear the possibility of guilt, or we have so much built up, we respond with rationalization.”

PJ stood up slowly, steadying himself, and we walked back to his abode. In the following days I asked more about the “building of the intuition.”

“The cause of hostility is guilt,” he said. “And guilt is the absence of innocence, the feeling of being wrong. This sense of not being innocent is, for a reason I’ve not been able to discover, unacceptable to human beings. A person must perceive himself as innocent. He can do no wrong.”

“In The Fall,” I recalled, “Camus wrote that the ‘idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his innocence.’ He said we insist on being innocent at all cost, even if we have to ‘accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.’”

“And so, Erin, we must believe our intentions are never hostile. The motives and consequences of our behavior are explained away, rationalized away in painstaking detail. Guilt is never allowed to remain in the consciousness.”

“I think you can admit you’ve done something wrong.”

“Nobody can admit to himself that he is wrong, ever. And I’ll tell you why. As you said, it’s because a human being cannot survive, I don’t know why, but he cannot survive without perceiving himself as completely innocent.”

He was sitting by his desk, the bright sun misting the ancient window and his white hair. “You see, the first compromise, a rational compromise, a child makes with what he knows is wrong—if there is such a thing as right and wrong—is not a very violent one. He doesn’t have to make a violent compromise because all he has to do is get around one contradiction. But as the contradictions of life pile up, he has to make more rationalizations.”

He elaborated, “What he learns about harming himself or other people, he may build up to a justification of harming other people, or he builds up a defense of it and a pretense of amiability. So when it comes to action and reaction, he has no moral control of what he does or says. Because it’s always done before he knows it and he has to rationalize it afterward.”

PJ picked up his glasses and shuffled through some papers. “You see, it’s rationalizing guilt that takes so much time out of most people’s lives. Because guilt has to be rationalized, it has to be put away, it has to be quieted down meticulously.”

“It’s an interesting idea …”

“When justifications and rationalizations have gone so far by the time a person reaches age twenty, he begins to wonder if he couldn’t be wrong.”

I smiled, remembering PJ had come to the Village at that age.

“But nevertheless, he’s got to be right. So then he begins twisting, he will switch around and hop around and do anything to keep from knowing he really is hostile.”

“We become conscious of our guilt.”

“No, conscience is a conscious matter, but guilt … the point is there is no guilt in the consciousness of the average person. They are saturated with repressed guilt. Until a person’s intuition becomes overloaded with guilt and hostility. In this case rationalizing becomes necessary, a way of life.”

I told him he was using words that needed to be defined.

He thought their definition was clear, but was now trying to clarify them. “To define intuition is difficult,” he answered. “The intuition’s fragments of memory and images never become conscious.”

“And what is rationalization?”

“Rationalization is the use of reason to make one seem innocent to oneself. Actually, rationalization distorts motives and behavior to make them seem innocent to the rationalizer. You see, no one knows, or can admit, that one’s intent is but good, and we lose as we rationalize any sense of what we’re doing. We lose this sense because we reverse hostility to a pretense of amiability. Many people have laid lie upon lie, compromise upon compromise, so they no longer know whether their motives are amiable or hostile.”

What a horror. Are we this imprisoned? “But is rationalization the only way to deal with guilt?”

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Deep Winter

Excerpt from Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, 2013

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A month of deep winter, near zero weather, and PJ in his cold Village garret was sick. I brought him a foot warmer. The nurse heaped blankets on his bed and set up a space heater.

“What are you doing here?” PJ looked up from his bed. “It’s four degrees outside.”

One evening I became ill, and by morning was struggling to breathe, painfully, as the congestion deepened into my lungs. For three days, I was in bed, getting up to change sweat-soaked clothes and to attempt to eat. By the third day, I was hallucinating. I seemed to be two people, one sick and the other well: the sick body and the rebellious mind?

I had a muddled sense of this and the split was not exactly clear, but one part of me was holding a conversation with another part. I dreamed of fire, then of a building on fire. I was on the top floor with my brother. My paternal grandparents, both actually now dead, were on the sidewalk below waiting for me. I had promised to go to the zoo with them, but first asked them to wait a minute because I had to go to the store, vaguely like Jake’s bookstore, and take something upstairs. So I did and when I was up there, I heard fire engines and people shouting. My brother and I looked out to see people pointing up at us and smoke pouring from one of the floors below.

I went to the door and started to step out, but the stairs had been burnt away, all the way down. Someone on a floor below opened their door and I shouted to them not to go out, the stairs were gone. No one came out and I began to devise schemes for our escape, when the phone rang.

I picked it up and someone said, “Hi, it’s me.”

“Who is this?” I asked.

“I’m the one who never calls anybody.”

“Who?”

“Jake. It’s me, Jake,” said Jake.

“Jake who?”

“Oh my God,” he said, “I can’t believe this. Jake who. My store just burned down and I call my best friend for sympathy and she doesn’t know me.”

Jake told me that there had been a fire on the second floor of the building his store is in. It started in the apartment above his store and there had been some smoke and water damage, ruining most of his books.

I passed away from life again into a delirious state, becoming more dissociated from myself. I thought I was three people, each one belonging to a different part of my face. One part belonged to one nostril and one to the other nostril and another to my mouth. Only the mouth was working. I kept asking, why have they abandoned me? Why don’t they work?

I felt myself floating down a river, and this went on for a long time, inexorably to its end, which I became slowly and in some pinpoint sense keenly aware of, but still I let myself go with the gentle but insistent flow. At last I felt myself buoying up, resisting the flow, and coming to a greater awareness.

Rising, I recovered enough to go to the hospital and be given medicine my mother later told me was used to treat Legionnaire’s disease.

Jake and I shared a laugh about my delirium when I was sick. “I knew you, but not exactly,” I said. “One part of me was telling me who you were and would have been able to talk to you, but I was almost unconscious. Everything was jumbled up. I also thought you were my Uncle Jake calling to tell me my parents’ plane had crashed.”

“Wow.”

“They were fine.”

“But my store did burn down.”

Together we moved through the water-soaked remains of his books and magazines. “I’ll get it going again,” Jake said.

During my illness, I experienced the hysteria and helplessness that PJ must live through daily. It was more than physical suffering and damage to the body. I realized that the mental aberrations and changes in consciousness caused by physical illness could become permanent. That would explain PJ’s “disintegration” and intensified “multiphrenia” and paranoia.

“You cannot experience my descriptions of my sickness with immunity,” PJ said. “You fell sick in a paroxysm of empathy.”

I had fallen beneath the weight of his narrative of despair, pain and helplessness. After this, I knew I could not witness his constant talk of pain and illness. I resolved to distance myself more from PJ. Suddenly, I wanted to find a way to be independent of everyone.

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A Greenwich Village Christmas Story

51ezxsrbol-_uy250_This is an excerpt from Tally: An Intuitive Life, the story of Paul Johnston (PJ), a Greenwich Village artist and writer, and his young friends Rogue and Erin Yes (Eyes), published by All Things That Matter Press.

Tally: An Intuitive Life is available on Amazon and Barnesandnoble in print and ebook formats.

We argued over this, and finally he said, “It’s a good thing our friendship doesn’t depend on mutual agreement.”

Finally, I was able to go about his place freely, pick up anything, move it, throw it away, read it or take it home with me. I put his papers in files I had set up in his garret.

He insisted we were together in love, in amiable affection, as we worked on a piece of graphic art for one of his booklets.

“In the gloaming,” PJ sang, “oh my darling, when the lights are dim and low.”

I shook my head, confused at the note of happiness in his voice, on guard against any dip into despair.

“In the gloaming, oh, my darling. Think not bitterly of me.”

Before I left to visit my parents for Christmas, I stopped by PJ’s. He was smiling broadly, and after a cup of hot cider and cookies, he handed me an envelope. I opened it and there was five dollars.

“I had gone to the hospital to try to get some relief,” he told me. “And on the way back, turning onto Greenwich Avenue, there she was, walking toward me, arms outstretched. The old man tried to see her, but could not clearly, except to see a form tall and plain with an eager expression on her face. ‘May I offer you some Christmas cheer?’ ‘Oh yes, the old man said, of course, I need it and am grateful.’”

“Are you giving me all of it? You need it, too.”

“The Third Party, God or whatever it is that arranges things,” he said, “sent this gift to me to give to you. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a Christmas present for you.”

And of course he had to write a letter with it, only one page with his monogram on it. Across the top he had typed, “Vanish gloom and melancholy, Tra lala, la, lala la la …” At the end he concluded, “The old man is strictly a catalyst in this deal. Last Christmas he did not know you. This Christmas he was grateful that he has met you. Thank you, Third Party.”

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