What is Paris without her Cathedral?

My reflections on the fire in Paris are now published in The Point Magazine.  You can read the full piece on their site.

Here are some excerpts:

“Stepping inside the Notre Dame is a bit like stepping outside of ordinary time and space. The immense verticality of the entire structure, illuminated from outside through light refracted in the colors of the stained glass, isn’t accidental in its immediate effects on our consciousness. We are meant to experience our own smallness relative to its vastness; we are meant to be drawn upwards towards the light pouring in from all sides, and to recognize it as symbolic of an external revelation that illuminates and transfigures our minds and hearts. Her rose windows are meant to be occasions to contemplate the mysteries of human life—birth, love, sex, death—and the nature of eternity. As we enter, we are meant to feel deep in our hearts a yearning for that which is greater than ourselves; if we do not experience this awe and wonder, or stop to contemplate the depths of these mysteries, we have missed something of the structure’s essential intent.

In noting its essential meaning, I certainly do not wish to deny that one can marvel at it simply as an architectural achievement, or at its historical significance for France—these are clear aspects of its universal appeal. At the same time, there is something abstracted about this posture that does not quite touch the depths of emotions even secular people report of their own experiences inside it. The truth is that the Notre Dame cannot be reduced to a “monument to civilization” or “architectural wonder” or “historical landmark”; there is a definitive truth it aims to help visitors encounter. The Notre Dame was and still is a cathedral of the Catholic Church, wherein sacrifices, confessions, and prayers to God are made every day; the entire edifice is therefore designed to draw out our deep longing for union with an absolutely transcendent truth, goodness and beauty. A posture of detached observation and mere appreciation stands in tension with any experience of it as what it essentially is. Mere abstractions do not pierce the human heart.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walker Percy Podcast

 

I was in DC yesterday giving a talk on Walker Percy and the Federalist Radio Hour asked me to swing by their recording studio to do an episode with them.  It was fun (Ben was an incredible host) and I’m delighted they invited me on the show.  In the episode, we discuss Percy’s ideas about the self and self-knowledge, the south, being a southern catholic, despair, sin, sex, women, false transcendence, and how to be alive to your own inevitable catastrophe of self.  If you are interested in Percy, you may want to bust out the Early Times, have a listen, and share with all of your friends. You can access the full episode here.

Beauty, Transcendence, and the Inclusive Hierarchy of Creation 

AdobeStock_43117675.jpeg
Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Rome

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies.

 

Interpreters of Thomas Aquinas have long argued about whether he holds that beauty is a “transcendental,” that is to say a feature of reality coextensive with all that exists, like unity, goodness and truthfulness.

In the first part of this essay I will argue that Aquinas can be read to affirm in an implicit way that there is beauty in everything that exists. He also affirms clearly that this beauty derives from God, who Aquinas says is beautiful.

In the second part of the essay I will consider what it might mean from a Thomist point of view to speak of a transcendent divine beauty, and what is cannot mean philosophically speaking, given Aquinas’ other metaphysical commitments with regard to divine simplicity in particular. In the final part of the essay I hope to treat the question of how the beauty of the creation both manifests and conceals divine beauty, and to give special attention to the topic of hierarchy of perfections in creatures (as being, living and intellectual). My argument will be that Aquinas’ hierarchical understanding of reality is inclusive in character, so that an order of ethical and religious ethics derives from the natural order of beauty. The world’s natural beauty is meant to be respected and cared for in ways that acknowledge the intrinsic ontological integrity of “lesser” realities but also their inclusion within an order that sustains rational creatures, and their reference to the divine.

Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis

34105463193_5dbc2aab32_z
“Bringing up the Rear” Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC.  Photo by Charles Payne.
What is it about some American service members that enable them to bounce back from something like a POW experience, which may include daily conditions like filth, disease, starvation, torture, murder, and unscrupulous behavior among fellow prisoners and guards? Is it possible to transcend those experiences and make meaning of them in ways that allow one to heal and move on? How does one survive these stressors and manage to do things well, like get married, have a family, and live a productive life for decades after the traumatic experience? This study explores these questions.

Transcendence is an under-appreciated aspect of human experience with potentially significant positive contributions to the study of “spiritual fitness” and resilience in the military (Mullen, 2011), two factors attributed to successful navigation of the military life cycle. Transcendence, as a possible influencer of resilience, can be tracked in various forms, including narrative. I propose that resilient American service members who survived and bounced back from something like a POW experience, and wrote about it later, left traces of transcendence in their stories, which can be studied.

I also propose that transcendence is native to the human experience and can be conceptualized as an experiential meaning-making process, rather than an event or state of being. In my model of transcendence there are at least two possible outcomes. The first outcome, stabilization of one’s sense of self, enables the person to more firmly root him or herself in a response to the question, “What am I?” The second outcome, extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, in space-time, gives the person coordinates in moral space and allows the person to draw from those coordinates in future situations, particularly those that might be morally challenging. Eight memoirs of American POWs from two time periods were analyzed: World War II and the Vietnam War. The memoirs were selected based on public availability and known resilience of POW survivors (no known attempt to commit suicide within five years of discharge).

Anti-transcendence, an “anti-process” and a contrary to transcendence, is a necessary conceptualization because both transcendent and anti-transcendent events are found in the human condition. Although failure to make meaning of personally relevant transcendent events does not necessarily carry negative consequences, failure to make meaning of personally relevant anti-transcendent events does carry a downside risk of destabilizing one’s sense of self and fracturing or disintegrating connections within and beyond oneself. Anti-transcendence as a possible precursor to destabilization of one’s sense of self, fracturing or severing of deep ties within and beyond the self, and as a possible catalyst to something like anomy (a form of meaninglessness), has received virtually no attention in the literature, yet has the potential to contribute to a larger discussion around related issues like moral injury, depression associated with PTSD, identity crises, and suicidal ideation. The figure below is a partial representation of my model of transcendence and anti-transcendence.
figchp.png

The results of this study challenge existing notions of transcendence as an event or state of being, and offer evidence of an alternative, trackable, conceptualization of transcendence. The study also offers a method to track transcendence in written narrative form, and to detect instances of both transcendence and anti-transcendence, as well as their outcomes. The resilient American service members in this study all appear to have processed transcendent and anti-transcendent events in ways that yielded patterned results, whether in regard to one’s sense of self or to extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Although resilience may not necessarily equal immunity to such symptoms as post-traumatic stress, transcendence and resilience together may be intertwined in ways that contribute to more robust coping or adaptive behavior, such as one of the memoirist’s decisions to tell his story and seek professional help for his PTSD symptoms after recognizing their persistence. The study of transcendence and its connection to resilience may also contribute to a broader concept of well-being, like the notions of human thriving or human flourishing.

A final word about transcendence: although this study is limited to the examination of transcendence at a personal level, there is also support for the notion that it can occur at a collective level. Peter Berger (1967) made three observations that are relevant to the idea that transcendence is a native dimension of the human experience, individually and collectively. First, world-building is a biological imperative for the human person: “The world-building of man is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution.” Second, world-building by the individual man is never separated from society: “Man’s world-building activity is always a collective enterprise. Man’s internal appropriation of the world must also take place in a collectivity.” Third, in the process of world-building, “man, by his own activity, specializes his drives and provides stability for himself.” I point this out here to show that there may be much more to transcendence when compared between the individual and collective levels; the potentially therapeutic outcomes of stabilizing one’s sense of self and making extraordinary connections within and beyond the self may exhibit phenomenal effects if the process is adopted organizationally, with due care to maintain the integrity of a person’s religious, cultural, and ethnic senses of identity. If, in future studies, transcendence can be identified more strongly as a positive predictor of resilience, it may play a role as a therapeutic mechanism, individually and perhaps even on a more communal level.

REFERENCES
[1] M.G. Mullen (Admiral, US Navy), “Chairman’s Total Force Fitness Framework,” CJCSI 3405.01, J-7 (1 September 2011).
[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

Cabrini Pak, PhD, recently earned her doctorate in Religion and Culture at The Catholic University of America and is on a two-year global assignment with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. She was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence. This is an excerpt of her dissertation, which studies transcendence in resilient American service members in two major war periods. Her dissertation will be publicly available later this year. “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis”: A Dissertation by Cabrini Pak, Ph.D. Director: Dr. William Barbieri, Ph.D. 

The Good Life Through Polarity and Transcendence – part 2

Paradigm of Sacred HuesThis post is part 2 of 2 (see yesterday’s post on the Polarity Principle). We’ve repeated the introduction for context.

In his encyclopedic book exploring the mysteries of science and philosophy, Guy Murchie (1978) identifies polarity and transcendence as the two great mysteries of all life systems.

Murchie’s profound insight is essential to our research and understanding of virtue, happiness, and meaning—the three constituents of the good life. Contrary to the predominant binary thinking of only pursuing what is positive, Guy supports the dialectical approach of second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0). That is, we need to accept the principle of polarity that permeates every aspect of human existence—good and evil, God and the devil, happiness and sadness, life and death…

Transcendence is also necessary because it integrates the opposites and moves towards greater connectiveness and higher consciousness. In terms of evolution, it is the inevitable process of moving from single-celled organisms towards more complex living systems, and from simple ideas such as “positive is good; negative is bad” towards more complex concepts like yin-yang.

Thus, the deep secret of the good life is to accept and transcend polarities. From the perspective of PP 2.0, acceptance and transcendence are the essential yin-yang processes. Acceptance represents the yin process of enduring and embracing life in its totality, with letting go and humility; transcendence represents the yang process of growth and self-expanding to the point of losing oneself in something greater and grander.

 

The Transcendence Principle

AdobeStock_38254756.jpeg

Murchie (1978) defines transcendence as “going beyond common experience” (p. 494). This common daily experience encompasses our sensory-perceptual experiences, space-time limitations, our struggle for survival, and the pursuit of creature comforts and pleasures. Transcendence occurs when we become aware of the spiritual dimension of meaning (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2012) or, metaphorically, stumble upon a staircase to the spiritual realm (Haidt, 2012).

 

Citing Thomas Browne’s statement, “We are more than our present selves,” Murchie (1978) sounds the optimistic note that we are all capable of growing and expanding ourselves through “the natural law of cooperation” which is the spiritual “golden rule” (p. 513), which reorients our way of living from egotistic concerns to altruistic caring for others, from earthly strivings to spiritual pursuits (Emmons, 1999).

 

Referring to Aristotle’s statement “spirit prevailing matter,” Murchie (1978) comments, “So the spirit-mind associates itself with finity in order to grow” (p. 519). Thus, one individual expands to humanity, and one individual consciousness becomes absorbed in the “all pervasive, if hypothetical, superconsciousness called the universal mind” (p. 500).

 

In a poetic flash, Murchie (1978) writes, “Our earthly life then, in simple terms, is a tentative tuning in on a particular collection of human cells—a transcendent resonance of protein molecules with intangible awareness in an illusory space-time continuum—a harmonic, a geometric interval, a note in a song of eternal and incomprehensive mystery” (p. 519).

 

To such majestic mystery, our only response is a sense of awe and wonder. It is a realization that life is much, much more than our mundane daily “common experience,” and we are more than “our present selves.” True virtue, happiness, and meaning all hinge on the principle of transcendence at all levels of our existence—from each situation and life as a whole, to the cosmic realm (Wong, 2014b).

 

In a world full of violence and conflicts, it is worth repeating that transcendence is inherent in the polarity principle. It takes something different, something better, to integrate or bridge the opposites, creating a new unity, a new reality. Thus, polarities lead to harmony and a higher order, rather than conflicts and chaos, because of the process of transcendence.

 

The inescapable moral dimension of true transcendence stems from its relational orientation—loving God and loving your neighbour. According to Aron and Aron’s (2012) self-expansion model, love is the process of expanding oneself by including others. This expanding connectiveness grows from marriage, family, and community, to transpersonal realms.

 

The principle of transcendence helps us understand why gratitude is so essential to ourwell-being. The reason is that gratitude reorients us from selfish concerns to the selfless appreciation of blessings from other people, external circumstances, and the Source of all life.

 

Thus, the positive psychology of the good life consists of accepting and transcending the dark side of human existence. The process of transcendence transforms the isolated self to a community and transforms evil, suffering, and tragedy to the spiritual experiences of grace, compassion, and serving the greater good.

 

In sum, PP 1.0 is a product of the privileged land of peace and prosperity; it is represented by a happy face. PP 2.0 is a product of the real world of polarities—peace-war, prosperity-poverty, and good-evil; it is represented by the symbol of yin-yang. Sustainable success needs to be built on integrating and transcending polarities.

 


References

Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (2012). The meaning of love. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.; pp. 185-208). New York, NY: Routledge.

Emmons, R. A. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns: Motivation and spirituality in personality. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Haidt, J. D. (2012). Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. TED. Retrieved from www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence?language=en

Kwee, M. G. T. (2012). Relational Buddhism: A psychological quest for meaning and sustainable happiness. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.; pp. 249-276). New York, NY: Routledge.

Murchie, G. (1978). The seven mysteries of life: An exploration of science and philosophy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. P. (2012). Personal meaning in life and psychosocial adaptation in the later years. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 433-456). New York, NY: Routledge.

Ryff, C. D. (2012). Existential well-being and health. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 233-248). New York, NY: Routledge.

Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.

Wong, P. T. P. (2009). The depth positive psychology of Carl Jung. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 545-546). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, 52(2), 69-81.

Wong, P. T. P. (2012). What is the meaning mindset? International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 4(1), 1-3.

Wong, P. T. P. (2014a). From attunement to a meaning-centred good life: Book review of Daniel Haybron’s Happiness: A very short introductionInternational Journal of Wellbeing, 4(2), 100-105.

Wong, P. T. P. (2014b). Viktor Frankl’s meaning seeking model and positive psychology. In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in existential and positive psychology (pp. 149-184)New York, NY: Springer.

Wong, P. T. P. (2016, July). PP2.0 Summit explores the new vistas of second wave positive psychology: How to embrace the dark side to make life better. Positive Living Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/inpm-presidents-report-july-2016/

Wong, P. T. P., Reker, G. T., & Gesser, G. (1994). Death Attitude Profile – Revised: A multidimensional measure of attitudes toward death (DAP-R). In R. A. Neimeyer (Ed.), Death anxiety handbook: Research, instrumentation, and application (pp. 121-148). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.


Paul Wong is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Trent University and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

The Good Life Through Polarity and Transcendence – part 1

Sacred Hues

In his encyclopedic book exploring the mysteries of science and philosophy, Guy Murchie (1978) identifies polarity and transcendence as the two great mysteries of all life systems.

Murchie’s profound insight is essential to our research and understanding of virtue, happiness, and meaning—the three constituents of the good life. Contrary to the predominant binary thinking of only pursuing what is positive, Guy supports the dialectical approach of second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0). That is, we need to accept the principle of polarity that permeates every aspect of human existence—good and evil, God and the devil, happiness and sadness, life and death…

Transcendence is also necessary because it integrates the opposites and moves towards greater connectiveness and higher consciousness. In terms of evolution, it is the inevitable process of moving from single-celled organisms towards more complex living systems, and from simple ideas such as “positive is good; negative is bad” towards more complex concepts like yin-yang.

Thus, the deep secret of the good life is to accept and transcend polarities. From the perspective of PP 2.0, acceptance and transcendence are the essential yin-yang processes. Acceptance represents the yin process of enduring and embracing life in its totality, with letting go and humility; transcendence represents the yang process of growth and self-expanding to the point of losing oneself in something greater and grander.

The Polarity Principle

adobestock_107829620-converted

Murchie draws heavily from Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535-c. 475 BCE). Heraclitus is best known for his doctrines that things are constantly changing (universal flux) and that opposites coexist (unity of opposites). “The way up and the way down are one and the same… It is sickness that makes health pleasant… And evil leads to good.” (Murchie, 1978, p. 472).

Evidence of the polarity principle is everywhere—positive-negative, subject-object, predator-prey, action-reaction, stress-relaxation… However, there is an underlying harmony and unity below the surface reality of opposites, as symbolized by yin-yang. Awareness and acceptance of the sameness of opposites result in transcendence.

This polarity principle sheds a new light on our understanding of positive psychology. Happiness is no longer the presence of positive affect and the absence of negative affect, but the acceptance of the inevitable polarity of feelings, and being attuned to the ebb and flow of emotions with a sense of contentment (Kwee, 2012; Wong, 2014a).

Maturation means the acceptance of inevitable losses that come with aging (Reker & Wong, 2012; Ryff, 2012) and personal mortality (Wong, Reker, & Gesser, 1994). Furthermore, virtue is no longer the absence of vice, but the triumph of virtue in spite of the reality of the dark side (Wong, 2016).

Similarly, meaning in life takes shape through the endless process of transforming and assimilating absurd and meaningless moments into a larger meaningful design. This process of personal growth is made possible only through the constant struggle and stretching to overcome challenges and obstacles (Wong, 2011).

The end result of accepting the polarity principle is that we are more likely to develop the practical wisdom of moderation or the “middle way” and less likely to develop radical beliefs and the polarized mind (Schneider, 2013). It will also contribute to what Jung saw as the individualization process of balancing and integrating all the opposites within one’s self-system (Wong, 2009).

Such dialectic thinking opens up many new frontiers for research and applications. For instance, gratitude exercises are no longer limited to the good things that have happened to us; we are challenged to express gratitude for the bad things as well, because of the valuable lessons and benefits that come from suffering. This type of spiritual gratitude exercise may be more helpful to those suffering from trauma. The Psalms are full of examples of a voice beginning with complaints and ending with thanksgiving.

In sum, the best way to increase the well-being of individuals and organizations is to accept and transcend the pervasive polarities of life such as success-failure, happiness-sadness, and virtue-vice. This perspective is similar to the medical practice of assuming that we live in a world full of bacteria, viruses, and illnesses that we can acclimate ourselves to and survive. Thus, positive psychology is no longer a refocus away from disease to well-being, but a broader focus on the reality of polarities.

Tomorrow – part 2, The Transcendence Principle


References

Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (2012). The meaning of love. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.; pp. 185-208). New York, NY: Routledge.

Emmons, R. A. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns: Motivation and spirituality in personality. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Haidt, J. D. (2012). Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. TED. Retrieved from www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence?language=en

Kwee, M. G. T. (2012). Relational Buddhism: A psychological quest for meaning and sustainable happiness. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.; pp. 249-276). New York, NY: Routledge.

Murchie, G. (1978). The seven mysteries of life: An exploration of science and philosophy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. P. (2012). Personal meaning in life and psychosocial adaptation in the later years. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 433-456). New York, NY: Routledge.

Ryff, C. D. (2012). Existential well-being and health. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 233-248). New York, NY: Routledge.

Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.

Wong, P. T. P. (2009). The depth positive psychology of Carl Jung. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 545-546). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, 52(2), 69-81.

Wong, P. T. P. (2012). What is the meaning mindset? International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 4(1), 1-3.

Wong, P. T. P. (2014a). From attunement to a meaning-centred good life: Book review of Daniel Haybron’s Happiness: A very short introductionInternational Journal of Wellbeing, 4(2), 100-105.

Wong, P. T. P. (2014b). Viktor Frankl’s meaning seeking model and positive psychology. In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in existential and positive psychology (pp. 149-184)New York, NY: Springer.

Wong, P. T. P. (2016, July). PP2.0 Summit explores the new vistas of second wave positive psychology: How to embrace the dark side to make life better. Positive Living Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/inpm-presidents-report-july-2016/

Wong, P. T. P., Reker, G. T., & Gesser, G. (1994). Death Attitude Profile – Revised: A multidimensional measure of attitudes toward death (DAP-R). In R. A. Neimeyer (Ed.), Death anxiety handbook: Research, instrumentation, and application (pp. 121-148). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.


Paul Wong is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Trent University and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Video: Jennifer A. Frey, “Transcendence”

University of South Carolina’s Breakthrough Magazine features our own PI Jennifer A. Frey in their article “Happiness Granted” and video (below).

“USC assistant professor of philosophy Jennifer Frey and co-PI Candace Vogler of the University of Chicago landed just such a princely sum this past fall, and they’re hardly bummed about it. Their pursuit of happiness, however, is really just beginning.” Read full article here.