Two Dreamers: Martin and Willy

Martin

Willie

Plato clearly saw that the material realm is a sluggish and recalcitrant collaborator with Soul in the creation of a world–personal and social–that is truly good and beautiful.  Even though we live in a messy, confusing, inconsistent world, however, we are blessed with the power to dream, and to shape the world, partially at least, into the image of our dreams.  The dreams we dream spring from, and express, the depth of our humanity and our vitality..  So I wonder: do my dreams approximate those of Martin Luther King, Jr. or those of Willy Loman?   I know what I like to say, but I must ask myself how I live, for it is only in the living of life that my true values manifest themselves.  Joseph Campbell once said that we live in one world and babble about another.

Further, it seems that the society of which I am a part falters in its attempt to nurture the highest dreams of humanity, the dream of aiding the human family to align with each other and with the transcendental source, however it is understood.  For our dreams–those we imagine and those we live–are the stuff of which our social systems are made. The need for structure and order in those systems molds them into powerful institutions that quickly become rigid bureaucracies.

Perhaps our inner values and outer behavior are strange amalgams of King’s dreams of love, and Loman’s dreams of social prestige and material success.  It seems that our major institutions share this central dissonance in that they offer the great promise of lofty dreams, but deliver the tawdry disillusionment of the salesman’s silk stockings.  Education promises learning, but many teachers deliver dry, rote memorization; medicine promises health, while doctors often deliver cold technique; the justice system promises equal justice for all, yet the courts deliver racial and economic discrimination; religion promises God’s love and forgiveness, while ministers with patriarchal authority deliver sin and Hellfire, building funds and empty ritual.   Martin dreams, and Willy delivers.

These observations are tragic in the classical Aristotelian sense: greatness brought to ruin by a tragic flaw.  The magnificent dream of America–liberty and justice for all–is corrupted by “The American Dream” which becomes more materialistic with each passing year.  American institutions and America herself embody incredible promise and disillusioning heartbreak.  The great voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, puts it this way: “Who am I? You know me, Dream of my dreams. I am America.  I am America seeking the stars.  America—Hoping, praying, fighting, dreaming, knowing there are stains on the beauty of my democracy. I want to be clean.”

In the light of the above, it is tempting to give up on our society and her institutions.  To say “To Hell with it; be dirty if you want.” How simple it would be to heed Voltaire’s advice, and with Candide, to cultivate our own gardens.  But to relinquish the dream of a better tomorrow and to sink into complacency might be the truest tragedy.  It would mean that we had stopped reaching for the stars.  No, with Langston Hughes, I want to be clean.  I want America to be clean.  I want our schools, our hospitals, our courtrooms, prisons and churches to be clean.

The truth that transformation starts with me is so obvious and so often stated that it borders on cliche.  Be that as it may,  It seems clear that if I value my integrity, I can only ask the world to be as compassionate as i am, as non-punishing as I am, as non-judgmental as I am.  To ask more of others than I ask of myself seems self-indulgent and hypocritical.   What good does it do to rail against the Willy Lomans of the world and to ignore the Willy Loman in myself?  Willy will fight me, will sabotage me, just as he does the institutions of the world.  I must ultimately see Willy for what he is: a self-created  and powerful part of myself.

The quality of my character contributes to the character of the whole.  Just as a beach is composed of countless grains of sand, so every act of every individual contributes to the spirit of all. While most of us will not be called to the center stage of the human drama, we each alter the world, infinitesimally but truly, by each kind or harsh word, each creative or destructive gesture as they unfold in small and seemingly insignificant moments.  It has been said that the world will be a shade kinder or a shade more harsh simply because you and I have passed through it.  That, to me, is an awesome responsibility.  And if we are called to a wider social arena, let us hope that we can remember our belief in the power of love as Martin Luther King, Jr. did.

As Plato says at the beginning of this post, we live in a world that is inherently and perhaps eternally imperfect.  Dr. King was not perfect, and neither is any human being.  I like to think that the current population of the world is simply at a relatively early stage in the evolution of humanity.  Wonders await us–if we can survive our childhood. But for now, Willy is with us, in our hearts and in the world, and he must be dealt with.  I believe, however, that it is not helpful to see Willy–the materialistic imperfections of self and world–as an enemy in a war. The Buddha’s teaching that only love turns away anger is an ancient truth that Dr. King not only believed, but lived.  Attack engenders defense and retaliation.  Judgment is by its very nature divisive.  So I must bring the Philistine in me, the materialist in me, the coward in me, and yes, the racist in me, to light, and once there, to acknowledge him with compassion and understanding.  For if the Buddha is correct, it is from the ground of love that transformation can begin. Plato suggests that the most powerful teaching is not through words but through actions.  The teacher simply points to, and lives, the light. The Martin in me (and I believe he is in all of us, dormant in some, quickened in others) needs to reassure and guide the darker parts of myself toward the light.  Like everyone, Willy needs reassurance and guidance, and only then might he quiet down, might he entertain the possibility of more humane dreams, and discover the resources to live with kindness and grace.

And so, like Sisyphus, we trudge up the hill of personal and social transformation.  Each day of our lives offers us new challenges that invite further growth.  Life is a wonderful friend, for it never leaves us alone, always ready to throw another curve ball to disrupt our complacency. We often encounter Willy Loman along the way.  Our personal lives as well as our social institutions can be profoundly disheartening, but the challenges and imperfections we encounter give energy and direction to the unfolding of beauty, much as the Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon.  Martin invites us on a journey toward a more just and loving world, a world that shines like a pearl. Willy supplies the sand, the grist to soften our hard edges.

15 thoughts on “Two Dreamers: Martin and Willy

  1. Hariod Brawn

    I don’t know if this whole ‘dreaming’ thing isn’t primarily an American trope John. To English sensibilities – not that they are in any way superior of course – pursuing dreams seems slightly vulgar; a little Amway if you know what I mean? As ever though, we follow in America’s footsteps, bowing, as with the rest of Europe, to the cultural hegemony, and in recent times also to the methods of its leaders and their paymasters. Our politicians here speak incessantly of ‘aspiration’, for it sounds a little more grounded than the assumption that we should bear a constant duty of ‘dreaming’. Yet whatever we call these things, the subtext is the same: ‘work harder, and play by the rules – this is the morally correct choice’. And yet it isn’t, whatever trust there was in our institutions and bureaucracies has been lost, the politicians are behind the curve.

    I may well be wrong, but I sense the whole thing is beginning to break down, coming back to a more realistic assessment of the state of the world, one in which the old order and earlier values are losing relevance and meaning, and the old dreams are seen to be empty of promise. As you say “the society of which I am a part falters in its attempt to nurture the highest dreams of humanity”. So yes, we come back to individual responsibility, we put our own house in order – spiritually, morally – and whilst so doing be the very best of neighbours that we are capable of. This hardly is a dream, for each of us knows it is achievable; it is within our capacity, and we sense this. We sense, or if not then desire, that our life’s endeavour be no Sisyphean task. One faith has been lost, and another gained perhaps? Time will tell, but I hope so.

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Thank you, Hariod, for your comments that are at once provocative and caring. I know I was very “American” in my remarks yesterday, but it was Martin Luther King Day here in the States, and I was attempting to honor his memory. I know his “I have a dream” speech has been replayed thousands of times and diluted by overexposure, but I still remember the electricity I felt when I first heard his words in 1963, riding on his marvelous voice and incomparable cadence.
      I am going to stick with my dreams. To me a dream is an aspiration charged with feeling and imagination (with my inward eye I can see multi-colored children playing together, and long for its reality). In my essay I tried to distinguish between two types of dreams: King’s dreams of love among all peoples, and Loman’s conditioned dreams of wealth and prestige–the dream pushed by political leaders and Madison Avenue. I don’t see King’s dream as a “duty,” but simply as an expression of a wise mind and a loving heart. And if it is a wise and loving dream, it is worthy of dedicating oneself to its achievement, even if only in the coffee shop down the street, as Michael said.
      I totally agree that Loman’s dream, The American Dream, is manipulative, self-centered, and ultimately empty. I also agree that the old order is breaking down. Hopefully, disorganization is a necessary prelude to reorganization.
      My allusion to Sisyphus sprang from a realization that no matter how well i did yesterday to live my deepest values, today will offer new challenges. In that sense, I will never get to the top of the hill, nor do I want to. Those challenges give traction to my dream and a dose of reality to my complacency,
      As I said in another note, you sure fire the neurons, my friend, and I am deeply grateful.

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      1. Hariod Brawn

        You were no more being ‘American’ than I was being ‘English’ John, and besides, what other could we be than that which we are, the products of our respective conditionings? I hope that whatever provocation you sensed it was not interpreted as anti-Americanism on my part. I stand firmly on the left of the political spectrum, and normally concomitant with that here in England there is indeed a default anti-American stance, one which I unfailingly object too. I frequently find myself leaping to counter this lazy and ill-informed thinking, which to me, is something of a shaming of our own Englishness. So, the perceived provocation was I hope rather more in connection with my baulking at the dreaming business – merely a cultural quirk of mine as I originally suggested – and the referencing of a cultural hegemony which I think is undeniable. Granted, I am being a tad churlish and curmudgeonly in my objection to the former, and I aim to blame that squarely on today’s new moon which does all manner of strange things to me don’t you know? 😉

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        1. jhanagan2014 Post author

          Ah, my dear curmudgeon, I am afraid that some of us who are on the Left here in the States are still defensive about our national behavior since 9/11. Guantanamo, torture, rendition, the devastation of Iraq–all these things still engender shame. Whenever I was in Europe during the Bush years, I would wear my U of Toronto t-shirt and say “EH?” a lot. But as you point out, every country has its darkness and light, making history a rather painful read at times. I was talking with Carolyn this morning, though, about the miracle of electing a black man as President. In spite of the dashed expectations of the left, there is no denying that there were enough Americans to vote for Obama–and that represents an amazing 45 year journey from King’s dream in 1963 to the election of 2008.

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          1. Hariod Brawn

            Who could forget the image of Jessie Jackson’s tears? Here he is reflecting on them the day after:

            “Well, on the one hand, I saw President Barack Obama standing there looking so majestic. And I knew that people in the villages of Kenya and Haiti, and mansions and palaces in Europe and China, were all watching this young African-American male assume the leadership to take our nation out of a pit to a higher place. And then, I thought of who was not there – Medgar Evers, the husband of Sister Myrlie; so, the martyrs and murdered whose blood made last night possible. I could not help think that this was their night. And if I had one wish: if Medgar, or if Dr. King could have just been there for a second in time, it would have made my heart rejoice. And so it was kind of duo-fold – his ascension into leadership and the price that was paid to get him there.”

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  2. Michael

    Hi John,

    Thank you for the beautiful reflection. Having read your post and then Hariod’s response, I cannot help but feel I am responding to each in a way. And for myself, I think the dreams are potentials, both vast and attainable, and the great difficulty is making our way through the brush, at night, without compass or direction, with nothing in hand but our dull machetes, with nothing at all to guide us really, but still we have this one cosmic memory, if you will, of the place we call “Home.” Of Love itself.

    In A Course of Love, Jesus speaks of prayer as an active remembering the reality of Love, a way of calling it forth in the present. There is a way we trade what we think is happening, what the consensus view is perhaps, for the experience of being in relationship with the Love pulsing at the heart of it all. And in this sense, I wouldn’t ever want to let the “dream” of Love fade. It is not a dream perhaps, but a reality, a memory, a presence knowable in every and any setting.

    I think a particular tragedy of this realm is the way in which we discount ourselves. I don’t sense that you were in your post, but I think this comes up a lot– the sensation people have of their particular life not quite mattering or being enough, as if their contribution to transformation is coming up short. It almost goes without saying that often many of us think we’re not living up to something, that we’re under-performing in some area, that Willy is stealing the day, that we’re talking too much and living too little, that we’re not putting it all on the line or being who we really could be. Whatever form this thought takes, I think it distances us from the opportunity at hand. It degrades the present and trivializes it. In a way I think it perpetuates the experience of reality that we’re too often caught within– that something is missing, something is off-kilter, something isn’t adding up.

    We think King’s moment was more meaningful than the moment when we chose love in the coffee shop, in the break room, while smoking a butt on the loading dock, while caught in traffic, while clarifying boundaries or expectations with our children. This mindset, with which I am all too familiar, undermines our ability to be that transformation. It binds us up and cages us.

    I guess it’s a long way of saying I agree with you. Our lives and our efforts to respond with love and compassion matter, but perhaps even more importantly, the realization of the “dream” comes from acknowledging the depth of beauty alive within each of us. Within ourselves. Love doesn’t exist in abstract bodies “out there”, it is alive within us. And if we undervalue what that means, something vitally important is lost (temporarily)…

    Michael

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Dear Michael,
      I used to tell my students that if I felt compelled to leave my study in order to read their paper to my wife, that was an automatic A. So this morning at breakfast, Carolyn and I were both moved by your inspiring thoughts and words, not that I would ever presume to “grade” your thoughts. I even hated doing that when I had to.
      I think we are in absolute agreement, but you gently shift the emphasis in lovely ways. You rightly sense that I was underscoring the magnificent opportunity of each moment to fill our corner of the world with kindness–and that the ripple effect of our actions is profound. I also agree that the tendency to diminish ourselves is counter-productive. Buber even says it is a sort of negative narcissism. I love Marcus Aurelius’ advice that even when we screw up we can return to the light at our center–and love that to which we return.
      You and Hariod both have me thinking more about dreams. I think Hariod was concerned with the conditioned character of the dreams that we are taught to dream by the “establishment.” I couldn’t agree more. Your comment makes me wonder about the relationship between the now and the future. Do my dreams take me out of the here and now, and into the abstract? Again, you put this clearly: Now is the only time there is to realize a dream of loving kindness. I don’t know, but perhaps there is a kind of pas de deux between writing checks and thinking about course corrections (which is what I mean by dreaming), and talking and writing on the one hand, and the blissful meta-cognitive immersion in right here and right now. Maybe those two ways of being enrich and enliven and inspire each other. However we work this out, I agree that words are simply fingers pointing at the moon, and at some point the pointing must stop. Perhaps you know this ending of the Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar:
      “Here eloquence can find no jewel but one: that silence when the longed-for goal is won. The greatest orator would here be made in love with silence, and forget his trade. And I too cease: I have described the Way. Now you must act–there is no more to say.”

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      1. Michael

        You are too kind, John. I am much enjoying this many-vantage-pointed consensus… I would agree with your suggestion that our writing and speaking– indeed, all of the ways we find to share our being with one another– and our “blissful meta-cognitive immersion in right here and right now” do enliven one another. For myself, I feel less and less distance between them.

        It strikes me we have several definitions of dreaming going here. (Poor topic sentence, I know, given you’ve both already stated this… 🙂 ) There are the type that are the expression of a desire to move towards an attainable experience, where the final form of the experience is not nearly as important as reaching the marrow of the experience itself, and then there are the dreams overly fixated on a particular image that are in essence a co-opting of the root desire. I think the latter are what Hariod was referring to, wherein a desire is supplanted by an image or the acculturated notion that the experience desired may only be had through particular conduits.

        Michael

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    2. Hariod Brawn

      We appear to have a consensus then, in that the dream you envision Michael, is not in fact that, rather it is reality:

      “It is not a dream perhaps, but a reality, a memory, a presence knowable in every and any setting.”

      “Jesus speaks of prayer as an active remembering the reality of Love, a way of calling it forth in the present.”

      Both of your quotes seem to point to what John says in his comment as regards dreams of our better nature being “an expression of a wise mind and a loving heart.” Could we say that such expressions are a lived reality (for some), and remain for each of us to apprehend as such within our own lived reality, our own better nature, which is eternally available “in every and any setting”? I think we can. And yet, if we speak of a ‘reality’, what exists outside of it? If I recall a previous quote of yours correctly, doesn’t ACIM say something like “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists.”?

      In my rather mundane language I referred to this apprehending of reality as putting our house in order spiritually and morally. To persist with my admittedly pedantic objection to any societal coercions to ‘dream’, perhaps we can say that all that is necessary is to realise that we are not, in actuality, dreaming, and that even when we think we are, that too is reality, for “nothing unreal exists.” Of course, in what we take to be our shared world, the one filled with conflict and suffering, we still must work, (dare I say ‘aspire’?) to realise harmony – the point John makes so well in his original article.

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      1. Michael

        Hariod, I want to try and clarify briefly the quote you reference, which you have quoted correctly albeit with the third and concluding line omitted (which is not critical here). I just wanted to say that in my experience of working with the Course in Miracles material, the language is used consistently to suggest that one can experience both the real and the unreal. But experiencing the unreal cannot make it real. It can only afford one the experience of separateness, and suffering. Because it is not real, it is transitory, and will fade when perception is healed.

        In the Course terminology, to misperceive by deeming the experience of the unreal as being meaningful in some way, and thus real, is to dream, and to create monsters where none exist. Dreaming in the Course is not having fantastic images at night, but having fantastic (and ultimately false) images of threat in waking life! The Course is quite clear that the equating of the real and the unreal is the root of confusion, our fundamental misperception, and the cause of suffering. Thus, in the particular way that language is used there, it would not be a valid conclusion to suggest that the dreaming is reality, too. It is valid as experience, but a misperception, and thus a path to suffering, to interpret the experience as meaningful.

        I think if we change the world reality to experience then perhaps we have a word neutral to both of us that allows us to convey your essential point, which I think is that dreaming or not, the experience is quite valid as it is a cognition that arises in our awareness, and that looking deeply into, or through, any experience, we are able to glimpse or apprehend our own better nature. I think if I have this correctly, we all agree on this point, and on the greater point about realizing our deepest desires for peace, compassion and love by ordering our own houses…

        So, while I agree that experience is experience, I am reluctant personally to accept that the misperceptions are “reality” too, and that is perhaps an artifact of my own conditioning, which I fully accept. The most helpful part of the Course for me was this essential point, which allows one to cultivate the ability to deny misperception, i.e. to dismiss dreams, and thereby to dispel the sensation of threat and the existence of fear. Once peace of mind is realized, the reality of Love returns naturally, for it is no longer opposed. The heart of the practice contained in A Course in Miracles is to discern reality from unreality, that our projections in the world may be healed and returned to our own hearts as brothers and sisters. So, putting my house in order (to the extent I can even say that) is due in no small part to this distinction.

        I offer this primarily because of your use of the direct quote in a manner not entirely in keeping with the intent of the source context, and because I hope it will be helpful in understanding what is by now a habitual and probably confusing use of language on my part.

        Ahhh, please bear with me, my friend… 🙂
        Much Love
        Michael

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Hi Marcia–and thanks for the note. It would be wonderful to see you again. We will be in Malaga on February 29 and again on March 31 (Nerja in between). We also might be passing through Austin in mid-January. Any chance for lunch?

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