TIM HARRIS, OF REAL CHANGE NEWS, INTERVIEWS BROTHER VOID
from a cell phone in the Albuquerque, NM rail yard
May 13, 2002
No one ever said living in late-capitalist consumer society was going to be easy. Sure, we can get a good toasted bagel whenever we like, but what does it all mean? What is the proper response to global poverty, ecological doom, and the popularity of “reality” TV? “Let the darkness light your way,” says Brother Void.
Andrew Boyd, a long-time activist who reads too much, has turned the syrupy self-help genre on its head to bring us the darkly ironic book of Daily Afflictions, subtitled “The agony of being connected to everything in the universe.” Each page begins with a quote, such as Nietzsche’s “Whoever despises himself still respects himself as one who despises,” leads us through a few paragraphs of meditation, and concludes with a pithy aphorism, in this case “My life is worthless, but it is mine.” Daily Afflictions has been called “ammonium nitrate for the soul,” and offers real wisdom to those of us who persevere because, well, what choice do we have?
Is Skeptical Mysticism for everybody?
Probably not. I came to it as a paradoxical way to leave unresolved, or hold in some kind of beautiful tension, incompatible beliefs. It’s for people who are inherently skeptical, and yet open to the wonder and mysteriousness of existence, or who even have had mystical experiences that are incompatible with an absolute skepticism. It’s the belief system I use to create a conversation between skepticism, and what you might call “revelation,” and hold them in an ongoing tension.
You came to this by way of epiphany, a Saul on the road to Damascus kind of thing. Do Skeptical Mystics need that, or can it be learned?
Let me tell you about one person who said to me, “I spent five years in seminary, and it wasn’t until I read your book that I realized I was a Skeptical Mystic.” So here was someone pursuing the spiritual path, who after five years shrugged it off without understanding what he had been doing or why he hadn’t “succeeded.” Maybe he thought he didn’t have what it took, or something like that. And then he came across the book — and this odd hybrid idea of Skeptical Mysticism — the solution I had to invent because nobody was offering it to me. So he looked at it and said, “Yes, yes, that’s what I am. I am this, and yet I am also that.”
Another of your key concepts is the idea of Compassionate Nihilism. How do you describe that to the layperson?
That again is something I had to fashion out of incompatible belief systems. On the one hand, I am dedicated to social revolution and to addressing the heartbreak of the world. On the other hand, I don’t believe the Universe has any inherent or given meaning and I also distrust the progressive teleology that things are going to get better. So what do you do? Suffering demands a response, but you know that simple charity isn’t the way to go, that one must address structural problems. So the response has to be a paradoxical and ironic melding of philosophies where I dedicate myself to revolution without necessarily believing it will happen. So, revolution is necessary but impossible–that’s the paradox. To address this, one becomes a Compassionate Nihilist.
The Amazon website says customers who bought your book also bought “A Day Without Rain,” by Enya. Is the Universe playing a joke on you here?
The Universe is playing a joke on all of us. What can I say?
Can someone live in the Ranch House of the Soul and still commute downtown?
I think we all live in the Ranch House of the Soul, except maybe those saints among us. It’s the part of us that chooses to cut ourselves off from others, to be satisfied with mediocrity. It’s similar to the notion of the “comfort zone” but with more of a socially critical edge. By quitting the ranch house of the soul we can unlock our own potential to encompass a greater reality. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It’s the things you think you can’t do that you must do.” Our destiny lies in those things we push away.
Why is telling the truth so hard to do?
There are both prosaic and deeper meanings here. Telling the truth can be, “Yes, I stole the cookie from the cookie jar.” That’s not what we’re talking about here. We mean the deeper inner truth telling. The confronting of who we are in our heart of hearts, and that is very difficult. There’s also the truth telling of creating ourselves. An Essentialist will say there’s a buried inner truth that needs to be uncovered. A Constructionist will say that our truth is unwritten, that it only exists as a potential. The idea here is that our lives are a story, a text that we write and edit and play out. This kind of truth-telling is quite difficult: to shape our own destiny, to create a world that is us, to shape ourselves as unique and irreplaceable beings.
How can selfishness lead to a better world?
By recognizing that those of us who are engaged in making a better world are not just doing this out of selfless and altruistic motives. There is a component of egotism and selfishness. It’s about who *we* want to be in the world, even if it is nominally for others. Take you, for example.
Yeah, you. You’ve been a homeless activist for fifteen years, and in so doing you are creating who you are, and you’re in the world in a way that feels right. And you seem like you’ve found the right place for you to be. Being an activist, helps you to be grounded. By owning up to how much you get out of it personally, you’re better able to put your activism on a path towards humility. It short-circuits the self-righteousness and arrogance and grandiosity, and the noblesse oblige stuff. It’s a more authentic act of solidarity. It recognizes that the people you advocate for offer you exactly what you want. And then it encourages others to get involved because you are modeling a way to be in the world that works for you, as opposed to a being all moralistic about it. As activists, it behooves us to cop to that.
You quote Kafka as saying, “There is hope, but not for us.” Is this really helpful?
Every once in a while Kafka hits me with something that feels profound and important, but I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what this statement, means, but it feels right. It’s scary. There’s a morbid fascination that I have for that quote. It’s a funny paradox. And it’s dense. Seven short words. It feels profound. It’s brilliant, and I don’t know what it means.
For me, it’s one of the four statements that make up the touchstones of Compassionate Nihilism: There’s A. J. Muste’s “I don’t do this work to change the world, I do it so the world doesn’t change me.” There’s the Gandhi statement, “Everything we do is futile, but we must do it anyway,” and then Gramsci’s notion of “Pessimism with the intellect; optimism with the will.” Those four ideas are the touch points. We change the world not just because it’s the right thing to do but because we must do it. There’s an inner necessity. In the face of our seemingly hopeless circumstances, such an ironic spiritual approach is to me the only way to bear our burdens, and actually do something.
One of the more controversial aspects of your service is the Killing of the Buddha. What did Buddha ever do to you?
It’s a good question. I don’t know that Buddha ever did anything to me specifically. But as a representation of idolatry, and a freezing of the quest, the idea here, I could use your help in articulating this —
If you meet the Buddha–
Right. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Killing the Buddha is about *not* fetishizing the quest for enlightenment into an image that blocks you from the original intent. It’s about freeing the existential, the human encounter with the divine, from the symbol that has come to represent it and has displaced the experience itself. This displacement can happen with anything and everything, but religion is the classic example of that, where we no longer seek the encounter, but merely live by ossified rules and rituals and images. So in our comic church service we take the reified object, this Buddha statuette that we think of fondly, and we smash it into little tiny bits with the end of a broomstick to bring us back to the absurdity of the Universe and the open-ended quest for enlightenment. It reminds us that it’s all really up to us, and that enlightenment isn’t what we expect it to be, and it isn’t necessarily what we’re wishing for. We need to shatter our own assumptions. It’s a lot easier to bow to the statue than to have a terrifying encounter with absolute reality.
One last question. What have you done with Andrew?
(Laughs). I left him in the phone booth where I found the monk’s cloak.