I was recently reminded of having answered the question ‘How does belief in the resurrection affect the lives of Christians?’ with the response ‘It instills in them a casual disregard for traffic lights’. The same friend reminded me how, when explaining years later how I’d come to be a Christian myself, I’d talked about having difficulty organising things, and said that God had helped me with it. I will try now to make more adequate remarks on both topics.
Three years ago, I was dead. I was buried in bitter waters. Having betrayed a benefactor, I was sunk in ice, in the last ditch of the lowest circle. I rose, and now I live. I was happy in my first year at Oxford. I was thriving socially and academically, in what I still think of as a near-ideal environment. That happiness, however, was something of an anomaly for me. Up until then, I had tended to be lonely and I had tended to be sad. Oxford interrupted the pattern, but after a year, the novelty wore off, and the sadness returned.
When my second year began, I ran away. I didn’t pay my battels, and ignored all emails telling me to do so. My phone broke, and I didn’t fix it. People asked me what was up for a while, but then they stopped. Things carried on without me. I was supposed to help out with Inter-Collegiate Quiz competition, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t sign in to email or Facebook or communicate at all, really, and I ended up alone in my room most of the time, listening to Wagner and leaving only to buy necessities.
What was going on, exactly? I think I was failing to handle human relationships. This mostly manifested in anxiety about my responsibilities. The psychic strain of even looking at an email about quiz arrangements was beyond my capacity. To look at those emails was to look into the sender’s eyes as I let them down, and it was horrible. So too for work, for battels, for whatever. There were all these people out there, with whom I shared some kind of relationship, who imposed perfectly ordinary and legititmate demands on me, and I couldn’t stand it. Even the little labour of making and keeping plans with friends was too much. And so I ran away, back to my room and into myself.
There are several factors behind this failure. For one thing, I’m simply not a consientious person. The evidence, insofar as I understand it, suggests that there are five robust personality traits. Conscientiousness is one of them, and I lack it. Hence the anxieties about responsibility. Extraversion is another such trait, and I lack that too, which complicates the business of human relationship. The big five traits, however, are only the beginning of a personality. What matters is what we do with them. What I was doing had become toxic.
Where I had been insufficiently conscientious, I wasn’t just apologising and working either harder or smarter next time. It’s not that I didn’t care. I cared a lot, but in such a lop-sided way that I couldn’t process my failures. I preferred to fail catastrophically somewhere out of sight than to stand up in front of others and own a minor failure. I didn’t respond to my introversion by making a renewed effort to connect with others over what they care about, or to connect others to what I care about. I responded by telling myself that I was special, that I need not make the effort because other people were unworthy of it. Loyal student of Bill Wood’s that I am, I engaged in Pascalian self-deception. I wasn’t letting anyone down; I was doing just fine. I didn’t need anyone else; I was so wonderful that others had nothing to offer me. So I ended up anxious and alone, wholly unenthused with reality. As I have said elswhere, it seems likely that I could have been classed as undergoing a period of depressive anxiety.
I have also mentioned self-harm. I did manage to drag myself to a few of the college bops during this period. After one, I ended up in a nonsense argument with my good friend and fellow Oriel theologian, Anatole Sloan. I hit him. If I couldn’t process my failure to help out with a quiz tournament, you can imagine how poorly I dealt with punching someone whom I love. I deserved exile. I needed punishment. So I marched out of college and into the night. Port Meadow was flooded, and the floods were frozen over. I took off my trousers, shoes, and socks, and waded through the ice. Not only did I cut myself, I eventually slipped under. Thankfully, neither wounds nor water were at all deep. The symbolism, however, is perfect. I had suffered a kind of spiritual death, and brought upon myself an eerily fitting Dantean fate.
And yet, I rose. Perhaps the only thing to bring me joy in this period was Wagner. Brian Magee has some frightening words on the subject: because his work ‘makes possible a passionate warmth and fulness of emotion without personal relationships’ it has ‘a special appeal for the emotionally isolated or repressed: Nietzsche; Proust living alone in his corklined room; Albert Schweitzer, who turned his back on the Western world to live out his life in Africa; Bernard Shaw, under-sexed and unable to relate to others except through ideas…’ So it was with me, alone in my own room, failing in the quest for the Historical Jesus (I was supposed to be studying for my NT paper at the time), and relating to others most easily precisely through ideas.
I could also see myself in Wagner. Most particularly, I saw myself in the character of Wotan. He too was proud, he too failed to handle personal relationships. He deceived himself, and was thus left anxious and alone, wholly unenthused with reality. In his plight I found my own, lavishly orchestrated, thrillingly harmonised. So thoroughly did I identify with Wotan that I grew his beard, as depicted on Sir John Tomlinson in Barnenboim’s cycle from the early 90s.
Wotan and The Ring end in proverbial catastrophe, but that is not where Wagner himself ends. Over the course of the cycle, Wotan’s presence recedes, while his story continues in his descendents: Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried and Brunhilde. That story recognisably extends on into Wagner’s final work, Parsifal, in which the fearless fool Siegfried is transfigured into the pure fool Parsifal. Wagner tried and failed to provide a solution to Wotan’s plight within the world of The Ring. In the new world of Parsifal, he tried again and succeeded.
The solution is an embarrasingly simple one: love. That had been the intended solution in The Ring, but as Wagner himself admitted, love as conceived within The Ring (and, for that matter, Tristan and Isolde) proved to be utterly destructive. The fix was to imagine a better kind of love. The fix was agape. Parsifal is made wise through compassion. He owns his failures and seeks the good of others at great personal cost. He is shaped by a community bound by ideals of service and sustained by a ritual common meal in which the transcendent is made immanent. You don’t have to be studying for a degree in theology to see that the solution to Wotan’s plight, and so my own, on which Wagner settled was essentially the same solution that Christianity has offered to the human condition in general for the last two thousand years. The degree in theology helped, though (particularly Zizioulas in Being and Communion, which is weird given how useless he is in most respects).
Of course, I already knew what the Church taught. I knew what the Beatles sang. As I say, it is some ways an embarrasingly simple solution. If you’d asked me before I started listening to Wagner whether The Beatles had got it right, I would probably have said yes, albeit with the obvious caveats that my philosopher’s mind can hardly help making. But I had to look back from Wotan to myself, both dying of pride, both failing to sustain personal relationships, to recognise what the absolute primacy of agape really means in both principle and practice.
Sustained by the beauty and the truth that Wagner offered, I began slowly to revive. I returned to my studies, which included a great deal of the philosophy of religion. I reintegrated into college life, nowhere more consistently than in chapel, which came to mean more and more to me. I already found God interesting, in the terms so well explored recently by my friend Jem Bloomfield. In my studies, I had come to find God plausible. Not rationally inescapable, by any means. But, as David Lewis observes, knock-down arguments are hard to come by in philosophy. The one thing remaining was to start praying for myself. I did, and it worked, in that I had something new to sustain me. I found the wonderful St. Bene’t’s Church back in Cambridge, and for a while moments of absolute conviction interspersed with renewed doubt. Finally, I allowed myself to be bombarded by the heavy artillery of OICCU. At the end of their mission week, the eyes of the room were closed and I raised my hand to acknowledge my Lord and Saviour. They had the satisfaction of winning me for Christ, I had the satisfaction of affirming catholically the centrality of the body and the incarnation.
Jesus hasn’t made me any more extraverted or conscientious (nor, indeed, has Wagner). When I fail, however, I am able to process my failure, and confidence in God’s mercy helps me do that. I make much more of an effort to connect with others, and the belief that God became human in order to connect with me and with them helps me to do that. But, as Bill’s Pascal argues, there are no shortcuts out of self-deception. It requires something like an ongoing process of religious conversion. I take myself to be called continually to repentance, to the renewed affirmation of the absolute primacy of agape. And so I’ve inched closer to living out the absolute primacy of agape. Now I’m not anxious and I’m not alone, and I am pretty well enthused with reality. I was dead, and behold I am alive: as I believe, forevermore.