Does America have a soul?

For all our information, we seem to have less wisdom about how to be with children, how to find time for friends, and how to make life worth living.

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Thomas Moore is the author of the bestselling Care of the Soul and, more recently, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. We also asked several of our favorite photographers to address his essay question.

Since the publication of Care of the Soul four years ago, I’ve traveled the country giving talks, signing books, and having conversations on talk radio. I have learned there are large numbers of Americans (maybe not the majority) who are passionate about, or at least interested in, shaping their lives to be humane, individual, socially tolerant and contributing, and spiritual by some definition. They are hungry for whatever it is that makes life worth living and are concerned about their own souls and the soul of their country.

Unexpectedly, I discovered in modern America an attitude I learned as a young man in a Catholic religious order: contemptus mundi, contempt of the world. By this phrase monks do not mean a hatred or rejection of ordinary life, but rather a resistance to dominant values, a rejection of current tastes that allows the cultivation of an individual, more consciously designed life.

One moment in my travels stands out. I was giving a talk in a large auditorium in New England when a woman sitting in the balcony stood up and told the story of having just quit her job. She had young children and was full of anxiety about her financial future, but she knew the work she had been doing was hurting her soul, so she made the tough decision to take the leap and hope for something better. The audience reacted to her story with wild foot-stomping, whistles, screams, and prolonged applause. I was shocked by their intensity, their obvious identification with her plight, but I have since witnessed these emotions in other parts of the country.

The soul is being served in America in less dramatic ways as well. On radio talk shows, people have read me their homespun poetry, told of cooking old family and regional recipes and of keeping their family homesteads intact, and read the precious old letters of ancestors. One man described how he transformed his microwave oven into a kinder and gentler device by using it for drying flowers. A hospice worker told an audience of professionally polished doctors and nurses how important it was as part of her work simply to bake a loaf of bread at the request of a dying man. Almost daily, I’m told stories of simple ways in which people are acting from their hearts and bringing soul to a doggedly cerebral and hardware society.

It’s easy to misread this attention to the ordinary and the simple. For some, the focus on “things” may smack of materialism. We have largely forgotten the immanence of divinity, the spark of spirit, and the profound value that can be found in made objects and things of nature. As an “ism,” our materialism betrays the fact that we have lost our love of the material. We no longer manufacture goods ourselves, and we leave real craft to the hobbyist. In a world of invention and convenience we are oddly ascetic, and therefore divorced from the materiality of things. Materialism and a world-fleeing spirituality sustain each other by reacting against one another, leaving us with bloodless spiritual lives and a never-satisfied obsession with things.

The way out of this maddening split is to ground the spirit and learn to appreciate the absolute virtue of the ordinary world. Giving some attention to daily life and even luxury may appear privileged and sentimental, but tending one’s home and finding at least moderately satisfying earthly pleasures don’t require wealth. In fact, it may be more difficult to establish a truly luxurious life when we are obsessed with possessions. Epicureanism is not hedonism, but rather offers a way back into a physical world that is now difficult to find in the many quantifications and abstractions, the percentages and tabulations, that fill both the professional and popular press. Obsessively we try to explain the world away, but in so doing we divide spiritual vision from physical existence, making life coldly abstract and reductively biological.

Magazines regularly trumpet the latest news from the laboratory. In recent months we’ve found a gene for romantic love and another for getting old. Naively trusting the scientist’s materialistic philosophy, we accept this narrow vision of human nature that steals our hearts and numbs our resources for compassion. Our very idea of what a human being is, how a family thrives or fails, and how love and fear shape our lives are all given over to experts in white coats and translated into cold, quantified studies. A public radio station in my area produces several weekly programs that deal with profound human issues, and each program is governed by experts who read out their statistics and offer their idea-free and heart-absent analyses. On the other side, of course, are the many guru authors who provide panaceas and palliatives in the form of inadequate explanations and simplistic solutions for human pain.

Ancient authors from all parts of the world and our own contemporary poets meditate and reflect deeply on love, marriage, death, work, failure, vision, spirit, and values. But in our therapeutic milieu, if an author writes about such basic human themes, it is presumed that he or she is a therapist-in-print, telling readers how to live, succeed, and overcome human foibles and suffering. Professional philosophy has become so arcane and airy that it is alive only in academic journals and towers, while practical, embraceable reflection on common human experience is assumed these days to be the suspicious labor of self- proclaimed experts in positive living who are desperately sought out by the masses and disdained by intellectuals.

It is difficult to protect one’s identity as a writer reflecting and meditating on matters that have no answers but demand constant inquiry and conversation. Opportunities abound for workshops, programs, techniques, and encapsulated answers to intractable problems. It is common these days to rarefy human life into theories and programs rather than reflect more immediately from daily experience. Some people would prefer 10 steps to happiness and easily repeatable jargon rather than challenging language of beauty and insight.

The medical and mathematical writing that surrounds us gives the comforting illusion of sophistication; in comparison, deep philosophical and artistic exploration may seem too simple. Formulas, tables, and rigorously designed studies look almost like thought, and we trust them for their toughness and empirical physicality. Yet the wisdom of the ages is traditionally presented in language that deepens our questions and our reflection, and it is united in calling for an intelligent cultivation of the virtue of simplicity.

Especially among the great spiritual teachers, there is a sophistication quite opposite in tone to ours, as when the wise Zen master Shunryu Suzuki recommends a “beginner’s mind” and an attitude toward one’s activities that recognizes they are “nothing special.” In contrast, our society seems to be pleased only by “specials” on television, spectacles in sport, spectacular political and social events, and, of course, special people — celebrities. Because of this focus on the exceptional, America is largely starved for the ordinary life of neighborhoods, friends, and family — the main concerns of the soul. By giving away specialness to others, we are left feeling that our own lives are not unique, that they are even less than ordinary. The spectacular draws our attention to the “stars,” to a level far above where we stand in our simple humanity, and so we neither value nor cultivate the simple things that make us human and draw us into communion with each other.

In a similar vein, instead of searching for the wisdom that will make us more humane and compassionate, we become fascinated with remote and disconnected bits of knowledge. We are dedicated to cool, mental information-gathering rather than warm, heartfelt conversation and contemplation. I know a man who has four television sets in his living room, all perpetually in play and each tuned to a different channel. His driving need to be informed and his disappearance into technology represent our seemingly well-intentioned escape from intimate engagement with each other.

We also confuse being informed with being educated. For all our information, we seem to have less and less wisdom about how to live in this world, how to be with children, families, and mates, how to find time for friends, and how to make life worth living. Our sophistication appears to be bogus, a cover for the fact that we have lost our inborn bodily wisdom about how to be humans who can work, love, and play.

Admittedly, I’m a romantic, a Neoplatonist who wants to gather his soul and spirit in the arena of precious ordinary human life — a mixture of pains and pleasures, failures and successes, depressions and exhilarations — which I prefer to take as a given. Unlike many of my co-citizens, I don’t believe in the healthy life. One often finds the most soulful people in hospitals (there for physical or mental reasons) or suffering through a divorce or trying to make ends meet. I fear that in the project of making life hygienic, normal, and adjusted, we will lose the last remnants of a compassionate, feeling heart and we will become well-functioning, long-lived people not sure what to do with our extra time and stymied in any effort to relieve the suffering we see around us.

I’m one of those people who should have been born 500 years ago. I’m an anachronism, and so I shouldn’t be surprised when interviewers ask: “How could a book like yours sell so well?” Many ask this question without guile, but some can’t conceal their cynicism. The answer, I believe, is in the title. By now the word “soul” has been taken up by every manner of publisher in hope of catching the tide, but for the average person the word itself speaks worlds. Intuitively, we know that in many ways we have sold our souls for the convenience and comfort of a technologically defined world. We feel our emptiness and can’t help seeing the decadence in our cities and towns, suburbs and countryside. We fear for our children, because we’d have to be blind not to spot the many vendors of soullessness who wait for them to leave their age of innocence and become available to the voracious minotaur of modernism.

One of the most extraordinary responses to my books on the soul has been the reaction of some in the religious community. A magazine founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s organization debunked Care of the Soul, and once, on the way to a lecture, I had to walk through a band of protesters carrying signs reading “Heretic.” On the other hand, I’ve spoken in churches of almost every denomination and tradition. I’ve been invited to speak from Catholic, Episcopal, Unitarian, Methodist, Congregational, Lutheran, Jewish, and New Age pulpits. Personally, I have felt a mysterious coming full circle as I talk about the soul in churches, doing what I had envisioned for myself as a young man when I left home to pursue the Catholic priesthood. I’m encouraged to see religious leaders revealing their compassionate hearts and open minds in genuine concern for their people.

Religion has largely forgotten about the soul. It has become absorbed in many activities that leave no room for it: the business of running a church, anxiety about attendance, the intellectualization of religion, defensiveness and proselytizing, entering the business of therapy, turning religious vision into political and moralistic demagoguery, and intolerance of alternative schools and traditions.

With an inquisitional tone, interviewers sometimes ask me, “Are you a practicing Catholic?” I may not pass a tribunal set up to test my orthodoxy, but my Catholicism reaches into my bone marrow. Religion is essentially an attitude of reverence, rooted deeply in culture and in the family. I can’t trade at will my congenital Catholicism for another religion or for sophisticated agnosticism. It lies so deep, my ego can’t touch it.

The deep soul of religion, in contrast to its exalted spirit, is to be found in traditional stories and ancient rituals, in the food, colors, ceremonies, festivals, arts, holy figures, sacred places, handed-down family pieties. It has close ties to nature, and, as experts are now beginning to discuss, it always has a shamanic visionary dimension.

Especially in America, which from its beginning has been a hotbed of spiritual fervor, we seem dangerously confused about religion. Liberalism continues to cherish its deism, agnosticism, and secularism, while conservatism reacts with fundamentalism, intolerance, spiritual braggadocio, and the anxious hope for theological homogeneity. In none of this can be found an inherently natural spirituality, an ingrained reverence and respect for the sacredness of the world and of the human race. By giving so much passion and attention to religious argument and defensiveness, we are left without the practical appreciation for the sacred that grounds families and communities.

Without that ground — the soul of the religious impulse — our religious attachments have to be nervously protected, and our secularity, essential in a community dedicated to political freedom, becomes spurious. Religion goes into hiding, but it doesn’t disappear. Our political parties become churches of a sort, and individuals make the therapist their priest. Patriotism turns into nationalistic worship, and sports stadiums resemble the temples of old.

I’ve long meditated on a phrase from a letter written by Emily Dickinson: “There is so much that is tenderly profane in even the sacredest Human life…” When a people has a thriving soul, its secularity allows the full enjoyment of worldly pleasures. This secularity is precious, and it is sustained by a deep, soul-set appreciation for sacredness in all things, a sensibility that is not contrary to established religion, but is, in fact, the ground of religious edifice.

The only way I see out of our dangerously divided political parties, our sadly divided religious groups, and our self-destructively divided business and environmental programs is to deepen the place from which we live. To truly deepen our perspectives, we have to look beyond technical psychology and the other social sciences for guidance of soul, beyond the physical sciences for a cosmology with heart, beyond entertainment for genuine pleasure, and beyond church or agnostic argument for a deep-seated religious sensibility.

Currently we are in the absurd position of protecting our secularity and religious freedom by outlawing the public display of traditional prayers and rituals. Our secular freedom and religious expression are both priceless values in a humane society, but we can’t honor them by legislating on behalf of one and debasing the other. The solution to this deep and pervasive wound in American society has to come from a more subtle understanding of both religion and secularity. Arriving at such a sophisticated understanding will require an intense exchange of ideas, the rarest commodity in a technological culture.

The modernist paradigm has brought us a measure of humane social consciousness and technological legerdemain, but clearly, in view of the heartrending suffering of adults and children around the globe and signs of emptiness and decadence at home, it’s time to move to another level. I wish for a new century of heart rather than mind, wisdom rather than information, and the pursuit of holiness rather than happiness. If my wishes appear like folly in the face of modern pragmatics, then maybe my next project should be a new translation of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, a book dedicated to the religious humanist Sir Thomas More, who lived a vibrant, worldly humanism and died a martyr for conscience, a religious fool dedicated to the spiritual vision that had shaped his entire life. This namesake has been a guiding model for me all my life, and I suspect that we could all benefit from an exemplar of our own who models a life that blends worldly pleasures with spiritual commitments.

Specifically, I would like to see education at all levels address the imagination, initiating our citizens into a deep sense of community and politics as well as an appreciation for the role of the arts in cultivating civility. I would like to see medicine give up its materialistic biological view of the human being, which makes us into bodies without souls, and learn from the world’s many healing traditions the central role of spirituality and imagination in dealing with illness. I would like to see politics become humane, using language honestly in contrast to its current Orwellian style and replacing debate with conversation. I would like to see our moviemakers and television producers discover the deep pleasures of the role of artists and the potential of their art for deepening the life of culture. I would like to see our churches and spiritual leaders restore a deep-seated, presectarian reverence for nature, culture, and the human person as an absolute base for the life of the spirit.

The soul loves diversity and multiplicity. A soul-focused community not only tolerates but cultivates and enjoys differences in race, nationality, culture, and vision. I don’t trust that tolerance and justice will be achieved through principle. These civil virtues require a coming to grips with our obvious, but denied, trenchant xenophobia. We need the realization that I, my family, my nation, and my race need the others, whoever they are, for our mutual fulfillment.

Defensive patriotism and nationalism are not political positions; they are collective neuroses that interfere with the deep sense of our common humanity that is the strongest signal of the presence of a soul.

I’m convinced that millions of Americans espouse this soul-oriented life, but it appears that many of them feel isolated in their convictions. They see a national persona of hype, ambition, narcissism, and materialism. Their values seem vulnerable and soft in comparison, their voices quiet and their ambitions humble. As a nation, we hardly know they exist. But we need their example and their testimony, indeed their taolike leadership — yielding and unself-serving — or else I fear that the uncontained spirits of personal ambition and greed will finally make us savage and dangerous to each other.

Deep in American life lies a dormant soul, almost obliterated by politicians and the media that consider it too lowly and weak for serious attention. This soul is powerful, not in a political or military sense, but because of its capacity for imagination and passion. To effect a deep change in culture would require a refusal of the status quo and the courageous application of tolerant and community-minded vision. We could all find in our hearts the ancient contemptus mundi that might inspire us to give less to the lure of a technological future and more to our children, our homes and land, our marriages, and those small, intimate details of everyday life that in being nothing special give us back our souls.


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