Call Me Ishmael

Sarah noticed the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing with her son Isaac; so she demanded of Abraham: “Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac!”
Gen. 21: 9-10

And when Jesus came to the other side, into the land of the Gadarenes, two men possessed by demons came forth from the tombs and met him; they were very fierce, so that no one could pass by through that way.
Matthew 8:28

 

In the Xaverian Fundamental Principles, we read:

It is through your life of gospel witness
lived in common with your brothers
that God desires to manifest
His care and compassionate love
to those who are separated and estranged,
not only from their neighbors,
but also from their own uniqueness;
to those who suffer
from want, neglect, and injustice:
the poor, the weak, and the oppressed
of this world.

In both of today’s readings we hear of persons who are excluded and so who become “separated and estranged” from their neighbors, from their families, from the human world as they know it. We are, in truth, social and communal beings. Perhaps, therefore, one of the most primal fears with which we live is the fear of being excluded, isolated, and estranged from our neighbors, from the “communities” that mediate the world to us.

There is, however, a great paradox in the fact that it can be that primordial need for acceptance and inclusion that can lead to a separation and estrangement from our “own uniqueness.” This tension between congeniality with our unique life call and compatibility with  our immediate and local experience of the human community in which we are immersed is one of the primary energies of formation, reformation, and transformation in us.

There are few of us who do not have memories of those painful childhood and adolescent experiences in which we felt ridiculed and excluded. Much of the way we formed our outer and apparent selves was in the service of maximizing what we took to be the acceptable aspects of ourselves and minimizing, and even hiding, the unacceptable. For Ishmael and Hagar, as for the men possessed by demons, there was no way of hiding what was unacceptable in them. So, Sarah wants this child of a slave away from her child, and the demoniacs are consigned to life in the tombs among the dead.

The strange, the foreign, the freakish in us is terrifying. So, when it is outwardly manifested we tend to exclude and segregate it. Because we are truly spirit, however, segregation, compartmentalization, and dissociation are never truly solutions. This is why Jesus is always drawn to the margins. There is something deeply human and truly blessed in those feared persons and in those dissociated aspects of our own personalities that we, who see ourselves as living “in the mainstream,” would separate and estrange from our lives.

What are we being taught today by being drawn to identity with Hagar, Ishmael, and the Demoniacs? In the person of the angel in Genesis and in Jesus in Matthew we see God drawing near to those who are separated and estranged, and we may ask if, perhaps, God is really closest to us in what is most fearful and estranged in ourselves and that truly constitutes “our own uniqueness.”

Everyday life is the way in which most of us attempt to dissolve the tension in our lives between the unique call we are for the world and what we hear and take to be the socially acceptable manifestations of that call. We manage to keep ourselves busy and satisfied with the belief that we are good and upright citizens and members of the human community (unlike those strange people who don’t adequately contribute), and we repress the deep human anxiety that revolves around the question of who we really are and what our lives are really for. In one of the most well known opening paragraphs in American letters, Herman Melville introduces us to his Ishmael.

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

It is a strange human paradox that we experience both a need for “life on shore” and, quite often, a distaste and even despisal of it. We need society for the necessary security it affords us, but we also realize that we purchase that security at a profound cost. When that tension is overwhelming, Ishmael takes “to the ship.” What do we do? How can we learn to keep alive a tension in us that is our only way to authenticity, to fidelity to the unique call that we are for the world?

Hagar and Ishmael are driven to the desert, with all of its dangers and terrors, and discover that the messenger of the Lord accompanies them there. Jesus is drawn to the margins, to the places where those dwell who are somehow not acceptable in the “polite and righteous societies” of their time. Faith would seem to suggest that there is given by God in those of us who are now alive what is necessary for God’s will to be done in our world. Perhaps God’s will is unrealized, at least in part, because of my compromises, my own needs for acceptance and security, and the repression that comes from my own fears that “my hypos [may] get such an upper hand on me.”

We both fear and are attracted to what is “freakish” in the others because this is our relationship to the “freakish” in ourselves. Throughout our lives, there remains much of mystery in ourselves, much of our actual call that we have never realized. We are both Sarah and Hagar. Somehow, in this tension lies our way to change and to integrity. We are not called to throw ourselves on our swords like Cato, but we may be called to our own variation of Ismael’s taking to the ship. Life, we tend to believe, is most fulfilling when the sea is calm and the way is sure. Perhaps, however, we are only truly alive to the possibilities of who we are called to be for the world when we remain awake to the discomfort that comes from the reality of our own strangeness, when we attempt to navigate through, rather than sail around, the storms of our own struggles to dare to give and to be who we truly are whatever the social cost.

 

The story Arbus wants to tell us explicitly about freaks—that is to say, in words rather than in photographs—is that she is envious of them. “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot,” she says, not wary of using either word:

It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.

Adam Philips, On Balance,  p. 221

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