New York City, 1950. I was 5 years old. I watched a group of boys my age kick another 5-year-old almost into unconsciousness. Searching my memories, I realize now that this was my first conscious experience of soul.
The victim of the attack was called The Giant, because he was unnaturally large: twice the size of most of us, he looked like a 10-year-old. The instigator and prime attacker was called Big Archie. He was a heavy, vicious bully. In those days, children were still supposed to be “seen, but not heard,” which in practical terms meant that between dismissal from school and sunset kids ran in parks around our working-class neighborhoods, unsupervised and largely unnoticed by adults. At dusk, we’d reluctantly trudge back to our apartments to take on whatever identity we assumed with our families; otherwise, we were feral creatures, left to ourselves.
The Giant, however, wasn’t feral. There was something quiet, reserved, and frightened about him. He was excluded by the others and sulked about on his own, in his own world. This was no doubt why I felt an affinity with him, though I can’t remember ever speaking with him. I was skinny, sickly, dreamy, and solitary, and like The Giant, usually excluded by the pack–though unlike him, I trailed after it and would sometimes be allowed in a game or a romp (like the time we kicked in an alley’s worth of cellar windows and demolished a glass phone booth with sticks and garbage-can covers).
On this day in 1950, the pack, with me trailing after it, approached The Giant. Big Archie started punching him on the arm. The Giant didn’t respond. Big Archie kept punching, first on the arm and then in The Giant’s stomach. The Giant kept repeating, “I can’t hit you, you’re smaller than me.” That didn’t stop the taunting and the punching. I realize now that The Giant’s parents must have lived in fear of his accidentally injuring someone much smaller in a fight or game; since we lived in a world where fighting was considered normal, his parents must have dinned into him that under no circumstances could he hit anyone smaller than himself. So The Giant repeated his mantra, even when doubled over by stomach punches: “I can’t hit you, you’re smaller than me.”
When he finally fell down, Big Archie took to kicking him. The others joined in. I remember clearly, but even now cannot fully describe, the depth of my horror as I watched.
My horror took the form of a flood of simultaneous perceptions: an indelible vision of the raw cruelty of my kind; a paralyzing sense of my own utterly naked helplessness, magnified by the certainty that there was no one to whom I could turn for help; waves of acute, inarticulate shame; and a profound admiration for The Giant. I had then what I realized, much later as an adult, was the first independent thought of my life: “The Giant is very brave.”
How was this my first experience of my own soul? It was the first time I can remember feeling viscerally, mentally, emotionally, and inescapably connected to everything and everyone around me–while feeling, what I can only describe as a sense of privacy so deep and unassailable that “loneliness” doesn’t begin to describe it.
Of course, I had no words to articulate the nature of this sense of connection and its counterpart, my sense of profound isolation. But the sight of such terrible, unforgettable, and unprovoked cruelty made me both aware and afraid of something angry and voracious in my fellow creatures. My sense of helplessness made me equally aware of something inescapably vulnerable in myself. My shame was, I realize now, rooted in a sense of responsibility—for I was ashamed not only of the others but for the others; which meant they weren’t Other: they were committing an action that (though I’d had no part in it but as a witness) was something that stained me, too, with a stain that I’d have to find a way to redeem by my own behavior.
An Absence—10 Feet Away
Los Angeles, 1985. A state of emergency–not for the city, prone as it is to emergencies, but for me. For me, what emerged was suppressed childhood memories that, with no warning and no mercy, swamped my consciousness. I was 40–but suddenly I was no age at all. A 5-year-old can’t help but be 5; he hasn’t the experience to conceive of being older and so, no matter how overwhelmed, he can’t be stripped of his childness. But a 40-year-old can feel that his experience, knowledge, and achievement have lost their authority, their points of reference—by which I mean that the quality of my years was stripped from me, and with that went any sense of identity.
Reluctantly, full of confusion and shame, and for the third time in my life, I sought therapy. That I felt this as defeat should go without saying. Most people who seek therapy do so with a sense of, and in a state of, defeat. And, like many defeated people, I resented and distrusted anyone who thought (so I imagined, resentment being no more than self-pity) that he was so far above me as to have the ability to save me.
He was a man in his seventies who’d been practicing psychotherapy for more than 40 years. I resented his calm, his surety–it made my panic seem all the more shameful. I talked; he listened; nothing changed. I spoke (brilliantly, so I thought) about the memories that had emerged and how they’d stripped me, and I related them to my writing. I talked a great deal about my writing, in fact. What I was really trying to do was to put the old man in his place: I was a writer, an artist, a very special animal indeed, and so beyond the reach of his humble skills.
During our third session, just when I was silently deciding that this therapy was useless and that this meeting would be our last, the old man suddenly and quietly asked: “Have you any idea who you are 10 feet away from a typewriter?” His eyes and voice were calm; he was absently present. Something in his presence—something that now I’d call his capacity to speak directly from his soul to mine–pierced my defenses. By the act of speaking to me from his depths, he was requiring an answer from my depths. Feeling utterly exposed, I couldn’t lie (I had nothing to lie with). I answered: “No. No. I have no idea who I am 10 feet away from a typewriter.”
That exchange made this much clear: the problem wasn’t the memories themselves, though they were bad enough; the problem was that I wasn’t yet developed enough, not complete enough, to have anything to meet them with. The most revealing fact about these memories wasn’t so much their content as my inability to respond to them. This, the old man would later say, is what those memories had returned to teach me.
I’d invested my soul in my writing—and, at that time, only in my writing. So I’d lost it there. Or to be more precise, I’d isolated it there. Abandoned it there. I’d invested my soul in my writing, but not in my life. My life was falling apart, not because of the sudden reemergence of a severe childhood trauma, but because that “emergence-y” needed to be met with my whole soul–and my soul was invested in, packed in, caged in, my work.
During our sessions over the next year, we fleshed out that question and answer. In essence, we drew a kind of map. I was located here, on a boundary. On this side of the boundary was the writing in which I’d invested and isolated all that was best in me—and my soul; on that side of the boundary was a life that I’d lost the ability to love, though I cared for it deeply…a life that was in the process of falling apart. The old man and I watched that life fall, piece by piece (my marriage, my job), and we discussed—as though we were watching a film in slow motion—each piece as it tottered and shattered. And though I tried, it was beyond my powers at the time to hold inner or outer life together. I was helpless against my own chaos. But I was at least learning who I was 10 feet away from a typewriter, and who I might yet be.
The old man had taught me to listen to my soul. To strain to listen to it amidst the noise, the cacophony, of my disorderly life. Only time would tell whether such a lesson would result in a therapeutic success.
Revelation at the Intersection
Shortly before my 49th birthday, I came to a street corner in a certain American city. It doesn’t matter which city. There are thousands of intersections like that one: a boulevard crossed by a side street and governed by a traffic signal. There, some 14 years after the question was asked—”Do you have any idea who you are 10 feet away from a typewriter?”—and more than a decade after that old therapist died, a strange and unexpected thing happened: my soul cohered with my life.
On a day like any other, I stood at a street corner, waiting for the traffic light to change from red to green. That change occurred. I stepped from the curb. And then it seemed I was walking in slow motion, when…suddenly…certainly unexpectedly…I felt enveloped by an awareness…all the elements of what I am…cohered…all the notes became a chord, a discordant but beautiful harmony… I’m this man, sad and full of longing, and my sadness is itself a song… I’m this man, attached to infinity by an unbreakable strand we call “the soul,” through which come messages beyond my experience… I’m so happy to be alive, to be allowed a part in the great procession that we call Eternity… I’m not a creation of the Universe, I’m an expression of the Universe. While a word exists, it’s alive in the mouth and breath, intimately connected to its expresser. As we’re being expressed we’re still in the mouth, the body, of God or the Universe. Perhaps this is the mystery of “in the beginning was the Word.” I felt, in slow motion, crossing that intersection, that my sadness, my longing, my beauty, my contradictions, my paradox, my failures, my gifts, were part of that which expresses me, breathes me, speaks me. “I am,” I said aloud, “a word in the mouth of God”… While I exist, in whatever difficulty of form, I’m that word, within a sentence I cannot conceive of, but to which I’m necessary (or I wouldn’t exist). Like one word in a sentence or song, I’m necessary for the expression of something larger than myself, something I cannot comprehend. “Remember this moment,” I said aloud, somewhere in the middle of the street. ” This is who you are.”
This blog is excerpted from “The Experience of Soul,” by Michael Ventura. The full version is available in the September/October 2003 issue.
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