Cerberus is a blog series. To start reading from the beginning, click here.
The first time I met Cerberus, the mythological hound of Hades chronicled in ancient Greek literature, I was 15; he was 120 and a resident in Denmark. He showed up in my life as the Great Dane called Kierkegaard. This first encounter happened in my father’s study, when I read about Cerberus in fear and trembling.
Preparation for this fateful encounter began in 1957, when my family and I moved to Chicago so that Dad could become a co-pastor with the white minister of Normal Park Baptist Church in a southside Chicago neighborhood. The community was being block-busted by realtors who first panicked whites to sell their homes on the cheap and flee. The realtors then sold those homes to blacks at inflated prices. The whites panicked because they were told by the realtors that the value of their homes would crash. They were scammed. So, too, were the blacks, who paid more than the actual market value for their new homes. Dad and the co-pastor were featured in a Life Magazine feature story. Nothing went unstated in the article except the project’s failure to stop white flight. When we arrived, the neighborhood was white. A year later, it was black.
My parents sent me to the University of Chicago’s Laboratory High School, which was the top-rated, private high school in the country. They were afraid that the time we had spent in Dallas, where I was forced to attend “the colored school,” had interfered with the stellar college-prep education my parents expected me to receive.
So in 1959, I was one of six “colored” kids in my U-High freshman class of a hundred or so students. I was no longer the brightest kid in my class. Nor was I one of the wealthiest. Some of my classmates were picked up after school by chauffeur-driven limousines. My classmates’ prestige was determined, in most part, by the rank of their fathers on the faculty of the University of Chicago or whether their fathers were the best doctor or orthodontist or wealthiest banker in town. Being the daughter of a preacher and elementary school art teacher, I didn’t cut it in this crowd. Race had nothing to do with the ranking. The prestige was derived strictly from your father’s status and profession.
For the first time in my life I felt poor and stupid. It was not a good scene for me. But then high school experience isn’t a good scene for most American teens. A New York Times lead paragraph got it right when noting: There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who had a good time in high school, and those who had a horrible high school experience.
I spent most of my free time holed up in Dad’s booklined study while he worked at church. The several thousand books on the shelves; the winged-backed burgundy-red chair; the mahogany desk; and the antique library table piled high with books, unfiled papers, and random thoughts scribbled on various pads of paper, let me crawl into my mind and disappear into the thoughts of Western civilization’s stellar philosophers and theologians.
This dense space is where I first met the pagan beast. The place was a haven for me from regret, complaint, and distress. I felt free as a monk in his cell after the day’s duties were completed, the prayers and confessions performed, and he had just extinguished the kerosene lamp on the small table by his bed. The dark matter of the universe was now as close to the monk as his thoughts. Throughout the night he would wrestle with a new thought, a splendid idea, or a daring concept until its blessing was granted and received. I was that monk of my imagination.
As I perused the titles on the spines of Dad’s books, in preparation for my next wrestling match with ideas, one title caught my interest: Fear and Trembling. I knew nothing about the book’s author, Søren Kierkegaard, or about existentialism, the school of philosophy this mid-nineteenth-century Danish philosopher—the Great Dane—founded to explore a major predicament of modern Western man: anxiety. But I knew a lot about fear and trembling. My life at home was an ongoing angst-producing punishment regime because I didn’t disappoint. Rather, I was the disappointment in my parents’ eyes. My great escape from their disappointment was the great books in this room.
I pulled Kierkegaard’s book from the shelf, thumbed through its pages, and stumbled upon a story about Abraham as he climbed Mount Sinai to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. According to Kierkegaard’s rendition of the biblical narrative, Abraham shakes with anxiety, is filled with sorrow, and is tormented by the paradox that he must kill his son and along with him “all my joy” in order to faithfully love God. So Abraham “nobly hid his agony,” his pain. His gut-wrenching anxiety and despair combined with his infinite resignation, according to Kierkegaard, to reconcile Abraham to God with the following result. God, seeing Abraham’s abject resolve to hold his anxiety nobly, gave Abraham back his son.
Kierkegaard’s logic made scant sense to me. I couldn’t track all of his strange reversals and unexplained claims about holy absurdity and faith by “virtue of the absurd.” But I liked his conclusion: extreme anxiety wrought by the expectation that love will be lost, joy crushed, and compassion slaughtered—is the good news. It’s a blessing from God. So we must gird our emotions nobly and climb the mountain to their death without faltering.
Thus my takeaway at age 15. My own anxiety, my fear and trembling, my anguish from relentlessly disappointing my parents and feeling bad must become the good news in my life.
But how could I tote my anxiety nobly? This question was Cerberus’ calling card.
I now felt his presence in my life as a deadening ability to kill every emotion that made me feel bad. I didn’t want to get rid of my family and the kids at school who made me feel bad. I wanted to get rid of the fact that I cared about the way they made me feel.
Cerberus became my Great Dane, my nineteenth-century Christian existentialist, my holy hound who damned love for others to kill the internal anxiety it produced.
Two conversations turned the calling card of this Great Dane into my rite of passage into his ranks.
If each religion is thought to be absolutely true by its adherents, and yet each belief system contradicts some of the truth claims from other religious traditions, then none of them, could be absolutely true.
The first conversation with Dad took place in his church office, when I showed up, unexpectedly, in the late afternoon on a cold, wintry day in January 1964. That morning, I had attended my cultural anthropology class at the University of Illinois, downstate in Champaign-Urbana, and listened to the professor explain how all human societies, all over the world, not only establish their own religions, but also claim that their belief systems are universally true. After querying the professor at the end of the class session to make certain I had understood him correctly, I went for a walk to think about what I had just learned. If each religion is thought to be absolutely true by its adherents, I now reasoned, and yet each belief system contradicts some of the truth claims from other religious traditions, then none of them, I concluded, could be absolutely true.
I walked to the train station and took the next train home to Chicago. I went straight to my father’s office and walked in unannounced. Dad looked up from his desk and tried his best to act as if there were nothing unusual about his daughter coming home from school in the middle of the week to visit him in his church office.
“What’s up?” he asked.
I stood in front of his desk and said defiantly, “Well, Dad, now I’m an atheist.”
Without a moment’s pause, he said, “What took you so long? Two weeks after I was in college, I became an atheist.” He continued: “But I want you to know that while you look for that in which you will next believe, you can stand on my shoulders and continue to climb towards the sky.” I received this theology lesson as an imprimatur, a credentialing ceremony that marked me off as a liberal religious thinker. I beamed.
The Sunday immediately following my midweek train ride home, I went to the Unitarian Church in Urbana, Illinois. I had seen a flyer for the church posted on my dormitory bulletin board. I had never been to a Unitarian church, but I now wanted a religious community, company, conversation partners, fellow travelers who overturned religious doctrine and sifted through the dross. The church community was aligned with Dad’s liberal theological tradition, with its recognition of Jesus as a man and the rejection of the Trinitarian belief that Christ is God. Unitarians are the people, so the joke goes, who believe in, at most, one God.
This liberal Protestant religious tradition of Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, by the early 1960s, had stripped itself of its original identity as a Christian denomination. It was now part of an association of non-creedal, liberal religious congregations called the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Having grown up Baptist, I was sure a conversion experience must have happened to me because I now called myself an atheist and went to a church that wasn’t Christian. But I couldn’t figure out what I had been converted to, since my atheism was not a religion. The sermons in my new church community were logically precise, reasonable, and predictable. The intellectual rigor appealed to me, but I was bored.
I knew that reason and logical argument are the highest and most noble human traits. And I knew that social justice work is good, service to others is great, and civil rights legislation and racial equity were long overdue.
Every Sunday, the minister “preached” these moral messages. The services always included three hymns, church announcements and an offering as scant and meager as the crumbs left in a bag after the bread is removed.
The coffee hour was polite, filled with talk about anything and everything except the bread of life: love. Jesus said to his disciples: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:32-35, New Revised Standard Version). These Unitarians were just like me: intellectually over-nourished and emotionally underfed.
I now expected nothing from my life as an atheist and that’s exactly what I got: nothing.
I knew that reason and logical argument are the highest and most noble human traits.
The second conversation with Dad took place on campus the following spring, when I invited him downstate for the University of Illinois’ Father’s Day weekend. I took him to meet my philosophy professor and they talked about Sartre and existential ennui. I was proud of him. He was a comrade-in-arms. As we walked across campus later that day, I felt free to talk with him about all sorts of angst-producing things, so I told him how much I hated moving from place to place as a child because he moved from one church to the next every three or four years. By the time I entered high school I had gone to seven schools.
“I like it here,” I blurted out, “because I can stay here for four years. I hated all the times I had to go to a new school. I was always the new kid on the block. I had a miserable childhood,” I said. I had never told my father about any of these feelings. But these were anxiety-producing things inside me, so I was confident that talking about them now would not only make sense to him, but also win his approval as a new chance to discourse on the meaning of anxiety, ennui, angst and anguish in life.
“You’re very fortunate to have experienced change at such an early age,” Dad began, “because life is existential; it is based on change. Life produces anxiety and doubt in Christian existentialists. This is what being an existentialist is all about: change.” That was it. The conversation was over. Dad now asked me about my classes, what books I was reading, and suggested that I take a few philosophy courses on the work of Sartre and Camus. I might also take a course on Christian existentialists like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Dad’s teachers at Union Theological School in Manhattan.
My heartfelt feelings, exposed to his ice-cold logic, froze. Rational discussions about religion were fine, but reason was cold comfort for my aching heart. The error that brought on this Big Chill, so I concluded at the time, was mine. I had forgotten that when anxious emotions showed up in me, I must wrestle with them as abstract ideas rather than toss and tumble with them as personal feelings that can make me stumble and fall, or, worst of all, make me whine.
Dad introduced me to Cerberus. He reminded me of what this Great Dane from Hades does. He snuffs out the troubling emotions that produce anxiety and carries them off to hell. Anxiety belongs to human existence because fate and death face us at every turn. The threat of human extinction is everywhere. So we have to affirm ourselves courageously in the midst of our own ceaseless angst. I had read these words in Tillich’s books. He was a Christian existentialist, too. Dad was curt with me because he thought I was just like him: an existentialist. I had just disappointed my father again because I did not carry my anxiety nobly.
Anxiety belongs to human existence because fate and death face us at every turn.
Dad had to remind me, at age 18, what liberal Christian thinkers and intelligent atheists do: we sacralize our inescapable anxiety and then nobly hide it. I hadn’t hidden my grief. That was the job of Cerberus, I concluded. I vowed not to forget this basic truth about human existence. I suffer, I said to myself again and again, because I am human, and this is our existential lot in life: we are anguished souls.
I now wanted to be like the boy in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, where mothers told their sons in this warrior society to come back with their shields in hand or come back on them.
Courage in military service was the highest moral value in Sparta. The boys were raised in barracks and trained from an early age to be warriors. One boy made friends with a squirrel and kept him as a pet, which was against the rules. A surprise inspection began and the boy knew that if his pet were found his entire team would suffer shame. So he tucked the squirrel between his stomach and his shirt and stood erect as the inspection was made. As the officers left the barracks the boy collapsed and died. He had been clawed to death by the panicking squirrel. A statue of the boy was created and placed in the center square as a hero, a true Spartan who bore pain without flinching.
That boy was now my hero, too.
After my suicide attempt, I saw the hound of Hades whenever I looked in the mirror and didn’t blink. Cerberus, unblinking, stared back at me because I had lost my ability to feel compassion, to care, to be open-hearted. These feelings caused anxiety in me because they were unrequited in my household and in my wider life. These strangled feelings were now the denizens of the underworld. Cerberus was always present in my life as the sarcasm, impatience, and indifference I displayed whenever a gentle feeling emerged within me or dared to approach me from afar. I ridiculed kindness until it went away.
Thanks to Cerberus, I could now imagine looking without blinking into the eyes of the racist, the rapist, the serial killer, the mercenary, the drug addict crashing before the hit, the priest going down on an altar boy, the drug dealer pimping his customers, the brutal gangs in the slums, the rapacious bankers and politicians in their elite clubs and their ivory towers, the armed guards of Wall Street, the greedy son-of-a-bitch who would sell his mother down the river to make another buck, the suicide bomber, the genocide troops, the plunderer, the bully—and see Cerberus. He’s the terror in their eyes, the clench of their jaws, the grip of their claws, the power lunge at the prey. Cerberus is the terror they feel and he’s also their terrifying presence and actions toward others.
Cerberus protects without compassion what’s been destroyed in people: compassion. He is terror.
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