The “Spirit” and Psychology of July 4th

Bright red and green fireworks display in Washington DC [7-2-15] recently interviewed psychotherapist, former monk and best-selling author of Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore.

The interview centered on the psychology of July 4th, and what the city of Washington DC actually represents to residents and visitors, according to Moore.

I found the interview both captivating and disturbing — unfortunately, mostly the latter.

Interviewer: Can you explain what “soul” means to the layperson?

Thomas Moore: Generally speaking, the spirit is the “upper half,” the part of us that is looking for transcendence, or to evolve, grow, or improve. Whether a city or a person, it’s an orientation toward the future, the eternal afterlife, or those universal values that are above individual circumstances.

I completely disagree. Moore talks about the soul as if it’s other-worldly. In my mind, the “soul” is objectively verifiable, and absolutely real. The soul refers to your consciousness. Consciousness has identity. It’s real. You are, in actual fact, a combination of both body and consciousness. Consciousness consists of everything cognitive about us, including our brains, but — more than that — our attitudes, beliefs, subconscious views, intellectual viewpoints, etc., regardless of whether those views and attitudes are consciously consistent or wildly contradictory.

Everybody who’s alive has a consciousness. Anyone alive who doesn’t have a consciousness is brain-dead, or tragically gone as with advanced Alzheimer’s. Whatever remains is not consciousness as it’s generally understood, and it’s one of the reasons we mourn the loss of consciousness in such a patient, even though technically brain-dead or Alzheimer’s patients are still alive.

Soul matters, because consciousness matters.

Whatever you believe or do not believe with respect to life-after-death, I don’t see how you could define a “soul” as anything other than a consciousness. Whether you believe that a soul exits the body and goes “somewhere” else after death, or whether you believe that the consciousness dies with the body — either way, a consciousness is part of what makes the human individual whomever he or she actually is.

When you fall in love with a person, you fall in love with their consciousness — their personality, their minds — as well as their bodies. In fact, it’s love for someone’s mind that can sustain a love for the long haul. Love for another’s body alone will not do it.

When you develop deep admiration and respect for someone — past or present, living or dead — in the arts, industry or science, for example, you feel admiration for their souls — i.e., their intellects, their values and their skills applied to the particular subject matter that has an impact on your own life, to this day. (Think: Thomas Edison. Think: Thomas Jefferson.)

A consciousness is concerned with this world, and this life. A healthy consciousness, operating with a physical body as an integrated unit, seeks to survive, sustain itself, grow, think, improve. An unhealthy consciousness will seek nothing other than short-term relief or gratification, without any sense of values or purpose, or even regard for the rights of others, in the worst case. Regardless of the values, mindsets or attitudes that one holds, they all refer to consciousness of something in reality — i.e., life and existence. Wherever you might stand on matters of religious faith, none of this requires religious faith. It’s all fact.

Thomas Moore, like a lot of self-styled spiritualists (along with many psychotherapists), imposes on his definition of soul and consciousness what he believes those things should be. He holds an opinion about what a soul should be, and then makes that the definition of a soul itself, with no apparent need or desire to prove it. Notice what he states a soul should be: orientation toward the future, the eternal afterlife, or those universal values that are above individual circumstances.

In other words, the purpose of a soul is to make us not concerned with our real selves, with our real and objective circumstances in this life — but with something other than ourselves, and with something other than this life.

I don’t know about you. But if I were to seek advice, perspective or some pretext of rationality from a psychotherapist, I would not want them to tell me how to be concerned about the afterlife, or with something other than myself. Quite the opposite, I would want a psychotherapist to offer perspective based on my life, on this world, on the real world, here and now and for whatever remaining time I have in this world. That’s just me. But I suspect that’s a lot of people, and if Thomas Moore is an indicator of what many psychotherapists are like, it’s no wonder the field gets such a bad rap, overall.

As for the 4th of July, Thomas Moore views Washington DC as a spiritual location, a place for the soul to express itself as he defines it. He says: When I come to Washington, I feel as if I’m in a whirlpool, or a vortex. In Washington there’s the sense that this is the place where the country and the world holds together. It’s a city where you’re not just thinking of the place itself, you’re thinking of the rest of the country and the world in a way that I don’t feel anywhere else. 

Many do have a sense that Washington DC holds the country, and the world, together — at least in principle. But who or what is responsible for that sense? Is it the politicians who actually trade away people’s money and property, and dream up new ways to force people to live in some particular way, which is most of what goes on in that city today? Or is it the ideas of liberty and individual rights, beautifully and powerfully symbolized at places like the Jefferson Memorial, that provides a sense of holding us together?

Interviewer: People often talk about “power” as part of the myth of D.C. But you seem to describe it as more “power-full.”

Thomas Moore: Right: it’s full of power, but not in the way we might say that a person has great power. . . . In my view, Washington is the spiritual center of the country. I don’t mean that in terms of a church or beliefs. I mean that in the very real sense of a religious way of being. Those who work and serve there could be compared to priests and priestesses. I think politicians get into trouble because they think of themselves as managers, and they view the whole operation as purely secular–but it isn’t. To have the role of leader and to be someone who decides these great issues of democracy and government: that is a religious role. They’re speaking for the spirit of democracy, which is much greater than themselves or their personal philosophies.

Ah, there it is. Moore’s criticism of today’s politicians is not that they violate rights, the spirit or letter of the nation’s founding documents memorialized and celebrated in the monuments of Washington DC, the monuments we are to visit as a reward of spiritual magnitude.

His criticism of politicians is only when they part from the role of “priests” or “priestesses” and instead become “managers” in a secular sense. To Moore, government is not secular. It’s not supposed to concern itself with reality, but with something other than reality. And it’s not supposed to uphold the value of the individual; it’s supposed to champion the “spirit of democracy,” which he claims is greater than ourselves (or even the politicians themselves).

Apparently, Moore applies to government and politics what he already applies to the individual, including psychology and psychotherapy. It’s not about yourself or reality; it’s all about others, and about transcending reality.

That’s exactly what Washington DC does today. It violates and trades away the property, money and authentic rights of individuals in exchange for the power, pleasure, and subsidization of relevant and powerful interest groups (both parties).

Blind, indiscriminate duty to others; and mindless transcendence of both self and reality. There’s nothing new about these ancient views. The people who came up with America, on the contrary, did have something revolutionary and different. That’s what I celebrate on July 4th, even though that sense is almost completely gone from Washington DC as we now know it.

When I look at Washington DC on July 4th, I see a disembodied ideal, and a grotesque contradiction. I see the monuments to Jefferson and Lincoln, in support of individual liberty and the self-interested pursuit of happiness in reality; and I see a group of power-hungry politicians who rationalize their violation of these principles in the name of a “transcendent” universe superior to objective reality — and as “higher” than oneself.

Those two things do not connect. It all starts with a flawed and inaccurate definition of soul. It starts with a philosophy like that of Thomas Moore’s — and it ends with the Washington DC we know today.

Happy July 4th, but not for the Washington DC of today. Instead, for the sake of what might have been and should have been, the ideals embodied by the timeless pursuit of  life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness — in this world, and with your own self-directed, active soul.


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