The Mystic as Grump – Guest Blogger John Backman

A big thank you to guest blogger, John Backman, for this contribution to the discussion on contemplatives and mystics.  (See John’s bio, etc. below.)  In this post, John highlights the mystic’s drive toward “making things right,” and the grumpiness that comes over us when things just aren’t right.  Right on John!  🙂  And just for fun, here’s a little music to accompany your reading! 

John Backman
John Backman

The Mystic as Grump

Apparently I am a mystic. I know this because I am cranky.

This is not your basic cranky: the kind that comes when the house is a mess (again) or I spill food on my good pants (again). This is more of a restless cranky—a vague sense that something is out of order, has burrowed under my skin, and needs to be fixed.

I felt this occasionally during our daughter’s teenage years, when I’d suddenly find myself resenting her for no reason.  Something about her manner had transgressed my personal boundaries, though I didn’t know what or how. My wife thought I was imagining things. Yet over the next week or so, the issue would slowly crystallize, and we’d all see it. Daughter and I would talk it through, we would both change our behavior as needed, and for a while, at least, the world was right again.

I feel this at work too. Something is amiss—perhaps there is an issue no one sees, or the gap between what we say and how we act is hurting our effectiveness, or no one is picking up on hidden resentments between employees. It hasn’t taken shape yet, but still it unsettles me. I might say something, but no one else seems to notice. I move through the world bitchy for a while. Then another person notices it, and then another; before long the problem becomes visible, and together we make it right.

There’s something in here about justice, and something about the canary in the coal mine.

You might know the canary story. To test the air quality in the mines, coal miners would carry a caged canary with them. Since canaries are even more sensitive to toxic gases than humans are, they would die when levels of those gases reached dangerous levels. Hence the birds served as an early-warning system: if the canary was still singing, keep mining; if not, get out.

In her series on mysticism, Lauri points out that “the mystics are kind of a living barometer, forever measuring the sorrow, pain, joy and ecstasy of what it is like to be human.  While it often feels like a rollercoaster ride, there is a purpose to the living barometers that mystics are.” The purpose, she writes, is to lead the world to love. And that is true.

But there is something else as well. When I read the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, I can’t help noticing that this God is zealous for making things right—for justice, to use the biblical term. “Making things right” can take many forms: clearing up a conflict between father and daughter in a way that both can grow…penetrating the veil of niceness in a worship community to address the long-standing pain beneath…opposing a political leader as he moves from popular icon to ruthless oppressor.

So maybe part of being a mystic, who strives to live in the heart of God, is sensing—early and often—when things go out of whack: that delicate tipping point between in-balance and off-the-rails. Maybe the voice of the mystic is designed to sound the alarm, to sing like the canary in the coal mine.

Apparently this is not a new idea. After drafting this article, I ran across a blog post from Keswick House Publishers about the research of Elaine Aron  into highly sensitive people. The post included a paragraph whose last sentence struck me with its synchronicity:

“Being sensitive carries its own set of perks, not just for the person him- or herself but to society at large as well. Many highly sensitive persons are artistic and creative, and because they are so attuned to other people’s emotional states, they can be excellent caregivers, perceptive therapists, and thoughtful friends. They may also serve the role of the canary in the coal mine.”

Sensitivity comes with the mystical territory. Maybe this brand of crankiness does too. Perhaps it reflects the passion of God for uncovering what is out of balance—and making it right again.

About the Author

John Backman, the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing), writes extensively on contemplative spirituality and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. As a blogger for Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, he has written articles for numerous faith-based publications, both progressive and conservative

4 thoughts on “The Mystic as Grump – Guest Blogger John Backman

  1. Thank you. I am a Type 1 on the Enneagram. When mysticism is implanted in the heart of a type 1, the scenario is clear, everything you write rings so for me. One must be careful not to be cynical. It is not always easy to watch situations come to pass. I find that staying on the periphery of an “institution” (not easy) can make life easier. Fortunately, that is possible volunteering at a Symphony – yes, I am retired.

    • Georgiana,
      I too am a Type 1 on the Enneagram (but you perhaps already knew that). Reform reform reform. sigh. The challenge is to find that place of “serenity” in the midst of the nagging tension over all the things that are “wrong.” 🙂 And to discern call from neurosis. 😉 Perhaps a tension that for the Type 1 really never goes away. Keep your eyes peeled this week for a blog I intend to write about a prayer practice that surfaced for me that really holds promise for moving through that ball of tension (“there must be something wrong with me”) characteristic of the Type 1.

  2. Two phrases here that stopped me dead in my tracks: staying on the periphery of institutions (I am feeling that a lot these days) and discerning call from neurosis. Must chew on these more. THANK YOU for putting them out there.

  3. It certainly seems that sensitivity comes with the mystical “turf”. I am slowly learning how important strong boundaries are when I sense that something is off in my environment.

    If I head straight into something that feels out-of-balance with an emotional charge, I run the risk of taking on the negativity that I am hoping to eliminate in my surroundings. This is where I find that keeping the attention within the body helpful – “what am I feeling in my body right now”? Thus, the need to stay “heart centered” if at all possible.

    Great article John!!

    Bob

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