What I Read Over the Holidays on Class Division, Spirituality and the Cosmos, Growing Old, and Creativity
The holiday breaks always bring more time for reading. This time around I went back and forth between four vastly different themes:
1. Growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood and adapting to a white-collar career.
2. Notions about spirituality and the cosmos.
3. Growing old.
The blue-collar/white-collar stuff came from Joan C. Williams’s “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” published in 2017, and from “Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams,” by Alfred Lubrano, published in 2003.
The spirituality and cosmos stuff came from three titles: “Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness,” by Evelyn Underhill, published in 1911; “Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Mind,” by Richard Maurice Bucke, first published in 1905; and “The Evidence for God: The Case for the Existence of the Spiritual Dimension,” by Keith Ward.
Then, of course, there is always something about growing old that I’m reading. This time it was Ezra Bayda’s “Aging for Beginners,” published in November 2018.
Thrown in just for fun was a very entertaining and wise, easy-to-read, short book titled “Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad,” by Austin Kleon, published in April 2019.
Okay, let’s get into these, briefly.
I found White Working Class fascinating and instructive. Williams presents an interesting side of the working class as being somewhere between poverty and just barely making ends meet, living day to day. She talks about a line of demarcation between those who live on government assistance and those who work their butts off at multiple low-paying jobs to survive. She defines the working class as not wealthy nor poor, with a medium annual income of $64,000, which is between $35,000 and $110,000 annually. These hard-working folks have experienced a 13% decline in their income since 1979. Our government policies pretty much ignore the needs and challenges they face.
She mentions progressives lavishing attention on the poor with social entitlement programs that “are limited to those below a certain income level, which means they exclude those just a notch above. This is a recipe for class conflict,” Williams claims.
For example, she points to poor mothers who don’t work because getting minimum wage would equal a financial loss. “Working-class people may not know the exact statistics, but they understand the differences between their families and those of the poor,” she writes.
“Poor married mothers (60%) are more than twice as likely to be at home full time as married mothers in the middle (23%). Nearly 60% of working-class mothers work full time; only 42% of poor moms do. In families with children in center care, 30% of poor families get subsidies; very few working-class families do (about 3%).
Limbo hit close to home. Lubrano grew up in an urban Italian-American neighborhood (as I did) in Brooklyn and also became a journalist. He’s near the same age as I am. He was a first-generation college student, as I was as well. He profiles a good number of folks whom he defines as “Straddlers,” meaning people who grew up in blue-collar, low-income, working-class neighborhoods and worked their way up to the middle or upper classes by getting employed in white-collar jobs, mostly by graduating from college. Now they live in two worlds, often finding themselves having to deal with awkward social and familial engagements, attempting to find a balance in their blue-collar and white-collar lives, as they navigate their careers and ultimately dwell in limbo.
Reading Limbo was a catalyst for an essay, “Blue-Collar Raised in a White-Collar World.”
Incidentally, in White Working Class, Williams focuses some of her perceptive theories on the fact that two-thirds of Americans are without college degrees (a stat that surprised me), and when you leave them “out of your vision of the good life, they notice. And when elites commit to equality for many different groups but arrogantly dismiss the dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America, this is a recipe for extreme alienation among working-class whites. Deriding ‘political correctness’ becomes a way for less-privileged whites to express their fury at the snobbery of more-privileged whites.”
In any event, reading these two books next to each other, in a sense, has given me a much keener understanding into why we are so divisive today, both socially and politically. If this is something that interests you, I strongly suggest reading both as an introduction into the very broad topic of class in America.
Okay, getting on with my brain-hopping reads, I switch to spirituality. What can I say? I traverse around a lot, and I’ve learned how to accept my autodidactic curiosity instead of trying to trim it down and focus more directly on one or two topics of interest. The internet, of course, has made it so much more easier for me to be a multipotentialite, one who takes a keen interest in many things, oftentimes not long enough to become an expert, as another knowledge pearl rolls in to captivate my interest for who knows how long.
Both Mysticism and Cosmic Consciousness are very strange books, in my opinion, and both are relatively difficult to read due to their early twentieth century writing styles. They somehow feel fantastical, and, in an odd way, rational, at the same time. Both present descriptions of cosmic, highly enlightening experiences that historically well-known people have claimed to have had (from Plato to Buddha to Henry James, Walt Whitman and numerous saints and others throughout time) in which they witnessed a transcendental light of eternity interrupting their real, material world. They get a glimpse of Absolute Truth (or God) that changes them forever.
Underhill was said to have numerous mystical insights, identified as “abrupt experiences of the peaceful, undifferentiated plane of reality — like the still desert of the mystic — in which there was no multiplicity nor need of explanation,” as explained on her Wikipedia profile.
Both authors were idealists who believed that true knowledge is dependent upon our transcendent thoughts and experiences that go way beyond the scientific constitution of matter.
“Mysticism avowedly deals with the individual not as he stands in relation to the civilization of his time, but as he stands in relation to truths that are timeless,” wrote Underhill in Mysticism. Mystics acknowledge that “even the most ordinary human life includes in its range of fundamental experiences — violent and unforgettable sensations — forced on us as it were against our will, for which science finds it hard to account.”
Bucke, an eminent Canadian psychiatrist, had a very brief transformative mystical insight when he was 35 years old, in London, while a passenger in a hansom after a long night of deep conversation with like-minded, intellectual friends. He explained it as a suddenly-out-of-nowhere discernable feeling “wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud” that became a light within himself, bearing with it “a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe.”
The experience gave him a profound insight concerning the immortal soul of man. He wrote that “the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long run absolutely certain.” Moreover “he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination lasted than in previous months or even years of study.”
This transcendent experience was the catalyst for his book, where he describes the evolution and devolution of humanity’s work-in-progress toward becoming cosmically conscious.
Ward’s book on spirituality is much more down to earth. He’s very intelligent and comes across as a scientist, although he is an English Anglican priest, philosopher, and theologian. His basic goal, as his title suggests, is to prove that spirituality exists in many different forms that we often ignore. The first several sentences of his book lay that theory out as follows:
“It is remarkable how atheism is becoming fashionable in England. It has become almost compulsory to say that you do not believe in God, if you are to stay abreast of fashion. It is equally remarkable that very few people have any idea of what great spiritual teachers have said about God. Knowledge of God is confined to a few stereotypical ideas about an invisible person living just outside the universe who interferes in it from time to time, and who long ago dictated a few ethical commands to groups of nomadic peasants, commands which can now be seen to be thoroughly irrational and obsolete. What many people in our culture seem to have lost is any sense that there is more to reality than collections of physical particles accidentally arranged in complicated patterns.”
Moving on to number three, growing old, in Aging for Beginners, Bayada writes about the realities of growing old not-so-greatly and reveals in stark realism how not all of us can age serenely without pain and discomfort. From that standpoint, he offers sound advice on how to overcome such hurdles.
For instance, Bayda explains how “even the loss of our physical strength and stamina, which we at first lament, can be seen differently. When we can no longer always be on the go and have to take more and more periods of rest, instead of seeing this as a sign of our decline, we have the opportunity to see it as part of the natural process — a process that now provides us with a time for increased reflection and inward awareness.”
I totally agree with that outlook.
Lastly on books, here’s my favorite quote from Kleon’s Keep Going: “I noticed a long time ago that there’s actually very little correlation between what I love to make and share and the numbers of likes, favorites, and retweets it gets. I’ll often post something I loved making that took me forever and crickets chirp. I’ll post something else I think is sort of lame that took me no effort and it will go viral. If I let those metrics run my personal practice, I don’t think my heart could take it very long.”
Thanks for stopping by,