The Ancient Modern
Literacy as Medicine for Obsessive Thoughts / Joshua Alan Sturgill
This morning, I reflected on a mental difficulty I faced a year ago, and on how I found help both to “weather the storm” and to think through it enough to learn from and accept what was happening to me. I won’t go into details, but I will say the difficulty involved obsessive attachment to an idea.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, we are given the concept of logismoi, which are habitual or intrusive thoughts. The logismoi can be simple, benign thoughts that become blocks to creativity and prayer. Or, they can be very disruptive thoughts—about anything from mere frustration to destructive desire.
In any case, last year I was aware that, very slowly, a particular thought was beginning to dominate my moods. It became a physical issue, causing stomach pains and depression. It was something I wanted, but couldn’t have—in the sense, that I knew that the thought itself was pointing to something much deeper and more profound than just a surface longing. I could have easily gone out to obtain what the logismoi was showing me. But I understood the desired thing in the thought to be merely a symbol.
What I found was that the thought had two parts: first, an action to take, and second, a particular triumph associated with the action. But in the real world, I knew that the action and the result weren’t necessarily related as cause-and-effect. A person is depressed and the thought comes. Let’s use a humorous example and say the thought is, “eating a lot of ice cream will make me happier.” There’s an image of eating ice cream and an image of being happy. The thought becomes a logismoi—irrationally joining ice cream with relief from depression.
We have all experienced this to some degree or another. My logismoi was much more complicated and consequential than ice cream, and had been sitting in my brain for months without abating. I had to do something. Providentially, the solution, though difficult, was already with me. It came in two parts: friendship and literacy. The second part was certainly the more surprising.
First, I have good friends with insight into human experience, and I talked to them about it. I took away the thought’s power of exclusivity. Isolation gives power to some things and takes power from other things. Certainly, obsessive thoughts gain power when we don’t talk about them. This is common knowledge; it’s the subject of self-help texts and the backbone of the counseling industry.
But what really killed the thought, what truly gave me the tools for getting past it, was literacy. After I took away the thought’s power by talking about it with trusted friends, I still had to “think it out.” And, I needed to find a guide for doing this work.
I’ve had a lot of experience with obsessive thoughts. I long to travel to places I can’t go. I fall in love and it isn’t reciprocated. I regret mistakes of the past, or wish for future circumstances over which I have no control. Any of these things can become logismoi.
There is a lot of talk about literacy these days, and about the loss of literacy, and even about “dysliteracy” (which means we are able to read, but chose not to do so, or only read shallowly). But real and true literacy is the integration of literature into the lives of literate people.
Once, we were able in Western Culture to have as guides and instructors, the great literary minds of the past. We were able to have Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Aristotle or Plato as our elder siblings in the arena of human being. Augustine and Aquinas. Wordsworth and Whitman. We studied these literary giants. We memorized them. We took them as physicians of the heart. This is what the Bible is for, and all the world’s Scriptures. This is why literature is passed down and preserved.
These great figures related the isolation of our individual experience both to the history of collective experience and to the Nature of the Real. That is, they gave us ideas, methods and examples for living in harmony with Reality. They explained how, but also why. Their morality was based on ontology rather than on satisfying a shallow legalism. They provided stories and images to liberate us from fear, rather than rules to follow from fear of punishment.
It seems that there used to be in the heart of our culture a “memory of memory.” We were taught how to memorize key passages and insights, outlines and concepts from the great books. And, we were also taught how to apply these memories to our circumstances. We once would have known the plot of the Iliad, and been able to recite a wise speech from it; we would remember the voyage of Odysseus, as well as a lesson on avoiding the Sirens in our own lives.
All this memory of memory is lost. In other words, we still have memory, but we have forgotten how to use it.
Our culture is now contained in devices. I think it is a ghastly proof of our loss of memory that we call the storage and recall in computers “memory” at all. Clearly, this is not memory. It is warehousing. Memory is a living thing, a conversation, a connection between souls. When information is merely stored in a book or a hard drive, then memory is gone. All the screens or hard drives in the world cannot compare to the power (and privilege) of a single passage from Shakespeare that is memorized, recited and contemplated—that becomes a skylight for the mind, a teacher and an irreversible maturity.
In the specific case I was contemplating this morning, I was able to let go of my obsession by deeply considering a passage of Plato. He explained what was happening to me. He let me know that others had experienced exactly the same difficulty and found a way through and past and over it.
It has taken me years of wasted time to understand the real power of literacy. But the moment that I realized a favorite imaginative passage of Plato was a favorite precisely because it was so practical was the moment my education was complete.
Education—as it used to be understood—is a foundation for learning. Being educated used to mean that we have learned how to teach ourselves. Once the foundation is laid, real learning begins: the kind of learning that includes finding community, examining and overcoming thoughts, and taking as guides those few ancient or modern writers who distill and distribute Wisdom. Wisdom waits for any who are literate enough to receive it.