A sign, south of Missoula: “AXMEN FIREARMS” — laying it on a little thick?
This sign, for a gallery on the side of the nearly deserted highway 1 between Drummond and Anaconda:
And this tree:
Then, at a local library, I saw a sign announcing Montana Shakespeare in the Parks presents: William Shakespeare’s Othello! Every year, this traveling company of players tours Montana and performs Shakespeare’s plays, for free, in local parks and community spaces in order to make Shakespeare available to everyone. I love this!
Their summer 2018 tour schedule had only a few performances left, and in a somewhat desperate and completely transparent attempt to feel like I had some sort of plan again, however limited or brief, I decided to follow them around—non-stalker-like, I swear—and watch their last three performances of Othello.
The first one I saw was in Dillon, MT, and it was very well played. The actor who had been playing Cassio sprained his knee since the previous performance, so two of the cast switched parts and were still rehearsing shortly before the show. The new Cassio glanced at the script several times during the performance, but it was all very professional and even the new Cassio was really good in his new role. I give them all huge props for dealing with that unexpected major change so well.
After the show, I drove half an hour south to a camping area by a dammed up lake, right on the 45th parallel, exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Great star gazing. This was the best view of the milky way I’ve seen yet! It looked almost 3-D, like parts of it were closer than other parts (though true, it is not something I expected to perceive).
Moonrise at 10:25! The moon looked like a small sunrise coming up over the mountain range. It was the brightest yellowish-white, almost full moon I’ve seen in a long time. I could almost read by its light. It was impressive, though it pretty much voided any stargazing the rest of the night.
In the morning, I woke up to swarms of insects: on the windows, flying in the air, over the lake, everywhere. I tried to get photos, and would complain at this point that I need a better camera, but I suspect that trying to focus on tiny, moving insects in midair would be a challenge for any camera.
The next evening featured Othello in Boulder, MT, followed by a few nights of camping in the Galatin National Forest, and then one last rendition of Othello, this time in Manhattan, MT, for the last performance of the season. Each time, the cast was more obviously comfortable in their new roles, and the last night the new Cassio was completely off book and seemed like he had been playing Cassio the entire season. Kudos to the whole cast!
In brief, Othello is the story of jealousy, manipulation, reputation, and bad decisions.
Othello is a general in the Venetian navy, and has just promoted Cassio to be his lieutenant, a job that Iago was hoping for. The entire play is the story of Iago’s revenge on Cassio and Othello, which he accomplishes by convincing both of them that he is their one true friend and confidant, that he will work for their good out of loyalty and friendship, and then uses that trust against them.
To exact his revenge on Cassio, Iago tricks him into getting drunk and then has an associate attack Cassio on the street, who Cassio stabs, Iago finishes him off when no one is looking and makes the killing look like Cassio’s fault. When Othello learns of the drunken brawl, he strips Cassio of his new promotion. Cassio laments:
Iago. “As I am an honest man, I thought you had received
some bodily wound; there is more sense in that than
in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false
imposition: oft got without merit, and lost without
deserving: you have lost no reputation at all,
unless you repute yourself such a loser.”
One reason Iago can manipulate others so well is that at least part of what he says is true. He responds that reputation is often gained or lost undeservedly, and therefore it should not be one’s highest priority.
Seeing the play three times, this point has been poking at me more and more, because it touches me personally. I have worked so hard to keep my reputation as an honest, upright, good person, but Iago is right. Even an honest person can be blamed for things or slandered undeservedly, while others can have a great reputation (like Iago) while hiding terrible secrets. How other people see me, then, is not an actual measure of how good or bad I am.
Which means that it is not reputation that is worth seeking, but genuine goodness, whether it is recognized or not. Who I actually am is the immortal part of myself, not how I look to others, who are all going to have different opinions, anyway.
Okay…sooooo…what do I need to do to achieve genuine goodness? This is going to be an “ouch” answer, because of course I know the answer but haven’t been doing it because at least part of me doesn’t want to.
I need to let go of my judgment, my pride, my ego, that I think I know what’s right, that I know better than others.
My judgment flares up so often because it wants things to be “right,” wants the world to be fair, and when it isn’t, it looks for the cause, and can’t help pointing it out when it finds it. And that part of me that wants things to be “right” doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t drop everything and fix an injustice when it is perceived.
But this is a world suffering from the effects of sin. The world isn’t right, and never will be right by human effort alone. This isn’t me giving up, but facing the reality that I can’t fix everything, and that just pointing out what needs to be fixed won’t fix it. Maybe once in a while a little improvement happens, but in the mean time I’ve pissed off more people than I’ve helped, and chaos abounds. The second law of thermodynamics wins again.
If I can finally, completely let go of judgment—that poor imitation of goodness, sin’s counterfeit of holiness—then I can finally, actually start on the path to true goodness.
But wait! Here my ego wants to list all the good things I’ve done and all the bad things I’ve turned away from and to use that to show how good and holy I already am. And that, too, is a trap because whatever progress I may have made (or it seems like I’ve made) is no progress at all without God’s grace in it, and there very often wasn’t.
It was my willpower or pride or my better-than attitude or even my autism or sensory defensiveness keeping me away from situations that many people easily fall prey to. Instead, I fall prey to judging others and thinking that it was by my own virtue that I avoided some of the more common sins. That my sins were less obvious does not make them less deadly.
Deadly to myself, of course, because if I think I’m on the right path when I’m not, I’ll be working in the wrong direction and never reach my real goal.
So why don’t I let go of that ego that is clamoring so tightly to how things appear and finally start on the path toward God? It’s a simple path and I already know what I need to do. There is no complicated ritual or secret handshake or cryptic mandate to unlock some obscure code. It’s easy.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
That is the Orthodox Church’s prescription to let go of the ego. (Not the self, to be clear, that God created and loves, but the ego.)
But that is boring.
(The Orthodox monk, Fr. Seraphim Aldea, once said of the monastic life: “This boring life will set you on fire….”)
But to paraphrase Paul, I don’t wanna do it. Strangely, I have less of an issue with fasting* than with prayer, but still I clearly don’t want to do it or I would have started before now. I don’t mean intermittently, or when I feel like it, but with intention and sustained purpose. So, what’s holding me back?
Music. And song fragments that I can’t get out of my head whether I like the song or not. Scenes from TV shows, movies, and commercials I’ve watched, sometimes many years ago. Scenes I’ve pictured from novels. And random facts. Things I wonder about. Whole imaginary worlds that I’ve created in my head. Plans for the future that might happen or even that I know never will. Going over and over things that happened recently or long ago. Rehashing things that were said and could have been said better, either to me or by me. Worries about things that might happen. Detailed scenarios for possible future misery, indistinct fears, and things that might go wrong.
Oh, yes, my mind can keep plenty busy. And yet, my highly experienced and very powerful imagination cannot conceive of anything being better than that internal ruckus. So it cannot conceive of letting go of the little it has.
Some of those things aren’t necessarily bad. Remembering good times, planning for the future, imagination, creativity, literature and entertainment at their best, these are all good things. But when they become all there is, when they become the focus of life, the goal, or a perversion of their healthy selves, that is a problem. Then they become idols I worship that lead me from the path God has laid out for me, miring me in the mud, choking me, telling me there is nothing more to this life, nothing better, and to stop trying.
Why am I clinging to this stuff so desperately? Is this really how I want to spend years of my life? Apparently so, as I already have. Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my life? Absolutely not.
Yet an object in motion…
Being a good, honest person who keeps her word is important to me, but I set that up a long time ago as my highest goal, as if maintaining that reputation were the crowning achievement of a life well lived, when it is merely the beginning.
Like how we teach children broad, yes-no rules when they are little, and those restrictions and liberties get more nuanced as they gain in maturity. The idea being that they should eventually be able to tell the truth, for example, not because they fear punishment, or because a parent said so, or even because it is the right thing to do, but because a genuine relationship between people requires openness and honesty, even when that means admitting that you did something wrong or hurt someone or are embarrassed or whatever.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving work because each of these, in different ways, direct the attention away from the ego and toward God and one’s neighbor. They are reminders of what is important, of what is needful, so that we don’t get so caught up in the things that just look important or needful.
Which is so, so easy. Whether I’m currently after reputation, my career, a personal project, business, hobbies, entertainment, enjoying life, scraping together a living, the list could go on. The biggest danger is in mistaking something that is useful or needful (bills, grocery shopping, etc.) for something that is important.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help keep things in perspective, so that all of those small things, the hits to my ego, the petty disputes, things craving my attention, things that claim to be important but that are really just miring me in the mundane, aren’t so hard to let go of after all.
So that, with God’s help, I can begin making progress toward actual holiness, which is just another way to describe being in communion with God.
*The fasting tradition in the Orthodox Church does not usually mean a complete absence of food, but limiting either quantity or types of foods. There is also no blanket requirement that applies to everyone, but guidelines that are modified for each person’s needs, health, and time of life, under the guidance of one’s spiritual father.