Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Living With A Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich


This is definitely not for what I usually sit down to read Barbara Ehrenreich. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did take me a little while to adapt to what was not a story both personal and researched, relating her experiences to wider domains of thought and study. There's certainly work out there on mystical experiences and the like, but she is not drawing it in and weaving it with her story. This is as close to a straight-up memoir as I've ever seen from her.

I miss that, the strength that she so often has in relating the personal to the theoretical, to drawing on buttloads of research to make engaging and compelling arguments.

However, now that I've said what the book is not, perhaps I should take a look at what it is. It is Barbara Ehrenreich looking back at both her spiritual and ethical development, coming from a family that was staunchly, even fervently, atheist. She's an atheist too, or has been, or sort of.

The sort of enters the picture because, as a teenager, and less frequently since, she's been having experiences that most closely fall under the umbrella of mystical. Without recourse to any material on the topic, as a teenager, it felt close to losing her mind, although Ehrenreich firmly refuses to be medicalized in that manner.

That's the vaguely spiritual part - these were terrifying experiences, inexplicable by what she knew of the world, and persist as unexplained to this day. But that is paired with what might be better termed her philosophical struggles, complete with a remarkably intense bout of solipsism.

This was one of those moments where I stare at the page, amazed. I remember running into solipsism in my last year of high school, playing with the idea for few minutes, then more or less dismissing it. I never had any doubt that people around me were autonomous human beings with their own thoughts and desires. I would attribute a lot of that to my parents, who, early in my life, encouraged me to understand why people did what they did, by constantly asking me why I thought someone had acted in a way that upset me. It drove me crazy then, when I just wanted to be angry, but now it is one of the parenting techniques for which I am most grateful.

It was difficult and interesting to come into someone else's journey towards falling in love with humanity that was so dramatically different from my own. Ehrenreich's story has the solipsism persisting, in one way or another, until her graduate work, when she was suddenly struck by one of her labmates concerns about being sent to Vietnam, causing a breakthrough in seeing people as different, and also as worth fighting for.

In that way, it's about how she comes to identify herself as an activist, to embrace learning and writing about things less easily quantifiable, and in the end, to try to come to grips with those parts of her life that still defy easy explanation. Her conclusions draw on all of these strains in her life, her atheism, science background, social science research, and the experiences which shaped her. It's an interesting read, although at times I did want it to be leavened with research.

But that is not this book.

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