Fortune, Minerva, Muse, Holy Ghost,– these are quaint names, too narrow to cover this unbounded substance. The baffled intellect must still kneel before this cause, which refuses to be named,– ineffable cause…
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
An appreciable number of Americans really do believe the Great Fraud of the mass culture, what the French call the hallucination publicitaire. They only know what they read in the papers… The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies.
There is a great magnetism to presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. I, my wife, and many of my closest friends—despite the hallucination publicitaire spawned by our mainstream media in an attempt to reduce the man to a cartoon—find ourselves moved by Mr. Kennedy in a way no other political figure has moved us before. I’ve been puzzling over why this is the case and feel I’ve found a clue in a recent interview Mr. Kennedy did with Charles Eisenstein.
Before I delve into the interview I think it would be helpful to share a bit about my wife and friends. My wife is a mother and elementary school teacher, and my friends are motley. One is a carpenter; one a real estate broker; one runs a local art center; one is a farmer; one is a beekeeper; one runs a landscaping business; one is a web designer; and one is a screenwriter. Some didn’t go to college; some went to Ivy League schools. Most are generally suspicious of what they read in “the papers” (though not a one, I’m sure of it, would call herself/himself “civilized”). Most are parents with young kids. And regarding Mr. Kennedy, all appear startled, almost sheepishly so, by their enthusiasm for the man. As my wife said to me one night recently, with a kind of groggy wonder: “I didn’t know how thirsty I was until I was shown a glass of water.”
About halfway into the above-mentioned interview, Mr. Eisenstein asks Mr. Kennedy: “How do you stay positive and upbeat and energetic? What’s your source of solidity?”
In light of Kennedy’s past—the loss of his father to murder, his uncle to murder, an ex-wife (and mother of four of his children) to suicide, his bygone struggle with addiction, and the current media-shelling—I’ve wondered the same thing. (And that’s not mentioning the stress of raising seven children and his high-stakes work as a lawyer on behalf of the Hudson River and other waterways; on behalf of Indigenous peoples; and on behalf of folks fighting against Goliaths like Monsanto and DuPont over their pollution. And that’s not mentioning the books he’s written and statements he’s made sharply questioning and criticizing our government and medical establishment.)
And this was Mr. Kennedy’s response to Mr. Eisenstein, delivered in his shaky catching voice with his grave, pointblank, glancingly wry demeanor:
A couple of things. I have a real spiritual discipline. I rely on Twelve-step meetings. I was going to nine a week during the pandemic. I’ve been doing that for forty years. That’s where I get spiritual renewal and confirmation and validation. And also the opportunity for service, which really is what keeps people sane. You know, if you’re feeling depressed or feeling discomfort or uncertain and anxious, the one thing that will transform that immediately like magic is if you try to help somebody else. And you get a lot of those opportunities in Twelve-step programs. I do meditation every day. And that also centers me spiritually. You know, I do a lot of whitewater kayaking and a lot of first descents on big rivers all over the world. And when you’re scouting a rapid you climb high above the rapid and you look at it for a long time and make a plan. You make a line—how you’re going to get through it, what moves you’re going to have to make. And then you try to stay on that line. And if you can do that, you’re going to be okay. A lot of times you wash out and you’re at the mercy of the river. And that’s what to me meditation is like: sitting still and planning your day and saying: How am I going to stay centered during this day and these difficulties, and ask for help? — And when I speak to this child: I’m not going to get angry; I’m going to be understanding. When I speak to this worker or business partner, I’m going to do it in a way that’s calm and not give in to anger or fear. And other times you can’t stick with your plan and you end up washing out. But you get another chance. God’s given us the gift of time but he’s cut it into these manageable units called days, and every day you can start over and try to do better…I try to stay spiritually centered. As long as I do that, I feel I can bear anything.
To which Mr. Eisenstein responds: “Have you been able to maintain the meditation practice during the rigors and daily intensity of the campaign?
Mr. Kennedy: “Yeah. I have to. It’s not an option for me.”
I quote from this interview extensively because I find it very rich. And very odd. I’ve never heard a possible American president speak like this before. Not even close.
Mr. Kennedy’s relation of his spirituality here is not a deftly dangled lure to snag votes (too undumbdowningly drawn-out, too indecorously frank), nor is it meant to signal a high score on a purity test (in his presidential announcement speech, Mr. Kennedy admits: “I told my wife the other day…‘I got so many skeletons in my closet that if they could vote, I could be king of the world.’”).
Nor is this spirituality a shibboleth to assert tribal identity, to proudly and cleanly distinguish himself from others. (With its mixture of Twelve Steps, daily meditation, whitewater kayaking, and “God,” his is too personal, too mongrel and eclectic, too much an embarrassment to a particular orthodoxy to do that.)
Rather, this is the spirituality of a man post-tragedy, post-heroin, post-forty-days-in-the-wilderness. Not the self-pleased, spick-and-span, airbrushed piety we’ve come to expect from presidential candidates these days but practical spirituality. Urgent spirituality. Un-optional spirituality.
And I wonder: How much of Mr. Kennedy’s appeal is because he so openly stands upon the groundless ground of the sacred?
And does his appeal disclose some kind of mounting revolt against the shallow orient of life these days (with its emojis, digital filters, and duck face selfies), a revolt against our chintzy breathless unexamined life of appearances? Is Mr. Kennedy scratching an itch for realness, for depth, for a life not merely horizontal but vertical, too?
And is Mr. Kennedy satisfying a want for a certain sort of light—the light that shines only through a great wound?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has spoken of the “deep religious background that was part of the gestalt” of his upbringing. As a child he attended mass daily—sometimes twice—with his family. And there were three shrines to St. Francis—who inspired Mr. Kennedy’s middle name—at his childhood home in Virginia: on the second-floor landing, the third-floor landing, and one in the garden. (Mr. Kennedy has written a children’s book about the saint.) And his pet hawks—he has been a falconer since he was young—nested in the home’s eaves. As a cradle Catholic who was drunk on raptors myself, I confess to being susceptible to such information.
But what moves me more is the second-half-of-life spirituality described in another recent online interview. Interviewing Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Cheryl Hines (Mr. Kennedy’s wife), writer and podcaster Cathy Heller asks how Mr. Kennedy managed to find his way after the murders of his father and uncle, his—to use Ms. Heller’s words—“two greatest role models.” How, she inquires, did “these two seminal events make you into the person you are today?”
Mr. Kennedy answers by first saying, “My father’s life had more of an impact on me than his death. And my uncle as well.” Then—perhaps perfunctorily, perhaps shrewdly—Mr. Kennedy adds: “I feel very fortunate. My mom always said, if she heard anybody feeling sorry for themselves, ‘Everybody takes their licks. You guys were lucky.’ Which we were.” When children in Watts or Appalachia, Mr. Kennedy then points out, lose their fathers, they don’t have the resources he had. And then Mr. Kennedy lists those resources—a huge supportive family, religion, a good education (Mr. Kennedy admits that because of his name he was afforded entrance into the college of his choice), and a “legacy that made sense out of the chaos.”
Then Mr. Kennedy drops into a different register. He speaks of a novel—“The Plague” by Albert Camus—his father gave to him with uncharacteristic urgency two weeks before he was assassinated in Los Angeles. Mr. Kennedy says he’s read the book many times over to “decipher” what his father wanted to tell him. (In another interview—with David Samuels of Tablet Magazine—Mr. Kennedy says he wondered of the book: “What was the lock that this was the key for?”) In the interview with Ms. Heller, Mr. Kennedy recounts the novel’s plot: a doctor is living in an unnamed North African city that is being ravaged by an unknown disease. The infection rate is high; the fatality rate is high; and there’s no known treatment. The only way to stay safe is to stay locked up. And the novel’s first half, Mr. Kennedy tells us, concerns the doctor’s dilemma: does he stay safe in quarantine and do nothing to help or does he leave quarantine to try to help—but probably end up doing nothing—and likely die?
“In the end,” Mr. Kennedy says, “he goes out and consoles people. And that act, that sacrifice he makes of doing his duty, brings order to the chaos of the universe.”
Mr. Kennedy continues:
Camus was an existentialist, a legatee of the Stoics…And the big hero of the Stoics was Sisyphus, and Sisyphus did an act that caused him to be cursed by the Gods to push a stone up a hill for all eternity. And he would get to the top of the hill but he would never be able to get it over—it would always roll back on him…and then he would have to do it again. But in the minds of the Stoics, Sisyphus was a happy man because he put his shoulder to the wheel. He knew what his duty was and he did it. And that is how we contribute to the order of the universe… It is a privilege to have a duty that I am supposed to do. The way I live my life is to never make predictions and have no expectations. Because if you don’t have expectations, you never get disappointed. The only thing I have control over is my own conduct, is the little piece of real estate inside my own shoes. I have to get up every morning and say, ‘Reporting for duty, Sir.’ And then go out and push the rock up the hill. And whether I get it up and over is irrelevant. Whether I win the presidency or not is ultimately irrelevant. I only have control over what I do on a day-to-day basis. The outcomes are in God’s hands. And I have to have faith in that. I can feel peaceful and content within myself, which is ultimately the objective, as long as I continue to be of service and keep doing the next right thing. So if you ask me the legacy that my dad gave me that is one of the important lessons.
As I reflected on this remarkable answer to Ms. Heller’s question, my thoughts were many.
First, I thought of that sentence: “It is a privilege to have a duty that I am supposed to do.” For a man who’s suffered so to say such a thing is, I find, something extraordinary. How refreshingly uncomplaining and noble-minded.
Then I remembered a biography of Mahatma Gandhi. I recalled how Gandhi’s favorite book was the Bhagavad Gita. (“Mother Gita,” he called it. “I turn to it for guidance in every difficulty, and the desired guidance has always been forthcoming.”) And I recalled how the Gita contains these famous lines:
You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.
Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results,
open to success or failure.
Then I remembered a few haunting remarks from another Stoic, Marcus Aurelius. In his diary, that leader of the Roman Empire (he was said to have held the highest and most powerful station in the world at the time) exhorted himself thus: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live properly.”
Finally, I recalled a favorite Zen story about a monk who refused to leave his temple when an invading army stormed his village. Every last soul had fled but for this one old monk. And the general of this invading army was curious about this holdout, curious what kind of man he was, and directly proceeded to the temple. When the general didn’t receive the trembling deference he was used to, the general, reaching for his sword, shouted at the monk sitting on the mat before him: “Don’t you know that I am a man who could run you through without blinking an eye?” To which the old monk calmly responded, “Don’t you know that I am a man who could be run through without blinking an eye?”
Could Mr. Kennedy not only have his father and uncle inside him but a streak of Gandhi, a streak of Marcus Aurelius, and a streak of that old nameless monk, too?
Spirituality comes up again in a Zoom interview with Russell Brand. Mr. Brand asks Mr. Kennedy how he remains “unfrightened” in view of the media criticism and Mr. Kennedy’s speaking out against—and these are Mr. Brand’s words—“the most powerful elite establishment interests on earth.”
How, Mr. Brand gropingly and gingerly continues, is Mr. Kennedy prepared to deal with all of the attacks—attacks possibly of the direst kind?
“I feel like I have to stay in a spiritual place,” Mr. Kennedy responds, “and come at everything I do from that spiritual place—that if I manage to be able to maintain that connection, everything durable or enduring I do will come from that place, and I am kind of invulnerable. And that the only thing that can hurt me is if I leave that spiritual place and start doing things that are self-interested and self-serving.”
Mr. Brand then says, with unstaunchable chortling delight, “Man. Right. I knew it. There is a relationship between a deep spiritual state and feeling safe in this world.”
This exchange, I believe, spells out clearly another aspect of Mr. Kennedy’s appeal. Mr. Kennedy seems to be living—or daily trying to live—what people of all times have sought: a safety—a sense of “feeling safe in this world,” of feeling “invulnerable”—regardless of circumstance, regardless of what happens, regardless of every invading general and his army. The popularity of Mr. Kennedy’s campaign, I believe, discloses a collective desire for a safety beyond the safety promised by the jabs, the emergency alerts on our phones, and the bullet-proof backpacks for our kids. Many Americans—and moderns in general—appear to be erupting with a hunger to be held not by the State and its agencies, not by the credentialed pundits on our screens, not by the whitecoats of science with their miraculous but also shadowy medicines, and not by relentless distraction and the constant hunt for the next hit of pleasure, but held, rather, by That Which Has No Name, by the Higher Power, by the Great Mystery, by the Ultimate Dimension, the Ineffable Cause. By—to use that flailing, problematic, and somehow embarrassing word—God.
Perhaps, in short, many Americans yearn for a president with an authentic spiritual connection. Or to use the language of Caesar Marcus Aurelius, perhaps many Americans yearn for a president who is already dead.
Now I don’t mean to suggest in the paragraphs above that my wife and friends—and the many other Americans drawn to Mr. Kennedy—are drawn to him only because of his spirituality. Some are moved by his unembarrassed work for peace and the “unwinding of empire”; others by his decades of lawyering and activism on behalf of our Earth. Some are drawn to his desire to uphold the constitution and our civil liberties; others to his desire to disenthrall our government’s regulatory agencies from greed-fired “corporate capture.” Some are impressed by the sweep of his learning, the range of his grasp of things, his habit of nuance, of heightening conversations into complexity. Others appreciate his questioning of the blind feckless drift into technocratic surveillance, censorship, and A.I. And many are seemingly drawn to his willingness to take a full look at the worst of our country (Thomas Hardy: “If way to the better there be it exacts a full look at the worst”). And many appreciate his penchant for not talking stink about the other candidates, for meeting with Americans on both “sides,” for living into the adage: “Beware of the blindness to the unity that binds us.”
I appreciate all of that, too. But I would assert that what’s underneath all of that—the spirituality of the man—is deserving of our attention and our admiration.
For that is the deep spring from which everything flows.
The great novelist William Maxwell said that every writer has a lifetime ration of three exclamation points.
For the sake of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his campaign for the presidency of our country, I’m using one of those exclamation points now.
What else can one do but exclaim after hearing words like these, words spoken during his presidential announcement address?
Environmental protection binds us to our own humanity and to all of creation. The natural world connects us to the 10,000 generations of human beings who lived before us and ultimately connects us to God. God talks to human beings through many vectors: through each other, through organized religion, through the great books of those religions, through wise people, through art, music, literature, and poetry. But nowhere with such detail and grace, color, and joy as through creation. When we destroy a species, when we destroy a special place, we’re diminishing our capacity to sense the divine, understand who God is, and what our own potential is as human beings.
(Blessedly, Mr. Kennedy seems to know that the “environmental issue” is finally—or rather firstly—a spiritual one.)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. apparently walks every morning in the mountains I knew as a boy. The Santa Monica Mountains. Deceptively large, chaparral mountains. I remember weekend hikes there with my family, various camping trips. And after school I rode my bike in those mountains in that trance of blank ecstatic receptivity peculiar to all children. Like my brothers and friends, I was to be out of doors until our 5:30 p.m. curfew. I remember finding bits of shell on my rides (the mountains were once the bed of the ocean); I remember the musky smell of mulefat, willow, mugwort, and sycamore along the shallow auburn creeks; and I remember hearing the solitary canyon wren sing, my favorite singer, its lucid descending notes, the tune a little staircase made of water.
And one afternoon I was high in the mountains climbing a trail on my bike and it turned to dusk. I stopped. I looked all around. Some toyon bushes with their red berries, some sagebrush, a bay laurel tree. A few boulders. A scrub jay flying overhead squawking. All at once I felt the deep strangeness of things, the mysterious thrum of being here. Everything was so beautiful and sudden and clear that I was afraid. What is all this? How did it happen? I looked all around more and the sense of the mystery continued, thrumming and thrumming. And then I felt, right upon the heels of that sense of mystery, an exhilaration: I am here. I am here. I suddenly knew, with a pierced-hearted gladness, a gladness verging on affliction, that it was something astonishing, something very glorious to be alive. And I turned my bike around—it was almost 5:30—and rode back home down the dusking trail.
Image credit: “Sunset in the Santa Monica Mountains near the west edge of Los Angeles County, California” via Wikimedia Commons