Thursday, March 15, 2012

the iconoclast

Like any hormone-plagued teenager who is simultaneously raging and yet uncertain about how to escape the strictures of the adult environment that rule his roost, I fell deeply in love with the word "iconoclast" when I first heard it. An internet dictionary defines the word "iconoclast" as "someone who attacks the beliefs, customs, and opinions that most people in a society accept."

And when I was a teenager, that sounded spot on ... gimme some of that! ... I was an iconoclast and proud of it ... or anyway I found the notion deliciously, impishly appealing. If people wore neat haircuts, I would be unkempt. If others went to church, I would stay away in spades. If others did damn near anything in a mindless, agreeable group ... that was obviously horseshit. The kick-ass Jesus turning over the money tables or disparaging golden idols was my kind of guy. Being an iconoclast was right up my alley at a time when finding an alley to be up was pretty hard. And if I couldn't find an alley to live in, at least I could pin on a label that seemed to offer some peace of mind: I would be an "iconoclast."

OK, I guess everyone snickers ruefully when looking back at earlier times, but I have some sympathy for the ignoramus I was. Teenagers and adults are not so very different ... everyone pushes the envelope. Perhaps the only difference is that an adult -- with very good luck -- recognizes that the bars on this cell, the envelope in which s/he is stuck, is entirely homemade. It's a rude awakening, which is why some very good luck is required.

The rough cob of this rude awakening lies partly in the fact that only an idolator could be an iconoclast. A kick-ass Jesus overturning money tables and excoriating golden idols may be a very good lesson indeed, but it can also be the basis for a whole new idolatry ... looking elsewhere for an ethical or possibly moral system that is only as good as what a lucky adult might assume personal responsibility for. The logic and reality simply don't hold up: Jesus was an iconoclast; I like Jesus; therefore I am an iconoclast too.

A rough cob: Ethics are what we see in public. Morality is what we perform when no one is looking. The rambunctious teenager in all of us -- the one longing to escape the envelope and break out of jail -- must first examine the constricting confines of a very-well-mortared and utterly personal idolatry. Railing at the heavens or assuming the mantle of "iconoclast" doesn't really make the night less lonely.

Examining the envelope or the jail cell is not for sissies. Why and how did I build this maximum-security institution? Why do I long to leave and yet am scared to go? Maybe I could just blow the whole thing to smithereens with some shazzam breakthrough of understanding ... oh goody -- enlightenment, kensho, satori ... the Tooth Fairy cometh.

This is not to make light of things. It's a pretty rough cob.

But bit by attentive bit, the dime may drop. There is no need to change anything. Things break (or change) all by themselves. Idolatry and iconoclasm are both extras that refer to me, not to the things themselves ... the things that change (or break) all by themselves. I may long to be in control or, equally, imagine that I have no control, but this is just kaffee klatsch gossip when confronting what initially may seem to be the  rough-cob facts.

Bit by attentive bit, idolatry and iconoclasm, like anything else, melt away. It's just what happens. This is no land for hymn-singing idolators or kick-ass iconoclasts.

It is just cool water on a hot summer day.

A wood fire in the sub-zero storms.

It is just home.

PS. In keeping with full disclosure, I have to admit that the impetus for the above probably came from an essay entitled "Buddha: The Perpetual Iconoclast" by Alfred Bloom. The essay was called to my attention earlier on this blog.

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