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In the World, not of the World

by on May 18, 2014

“In the World, not of the World”
by Marco M. Pardi

“Something of a hermit’s temper is an essential element in many forms of excellence, since it enables men to resist the lure of popularity, to pursue important work in spite of general indifference or hostility, and arrive at opinions which are opposed to prevalent errors.”
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Power: A New Social Analysis, 2, 1938

The title phrase is actually apocryphal, appearing in several forms in the bible and found in other, older literature and oral traditions as well. Regardless, it provides both an elegant description and a possibly life saving prescription.

My memory is long and very detailed. Some would say too much so. Be that as it may, I remember being asked, at age 6, what I wanted to be when I grew up. The questioner was a cloistered nun, teaching in the monastic boarding school I had resided in since age 5. My answer was simple and direct: a hermit. Her response, or lack thereof, was as simple. She gave me an odd look and walked off. Had I been a smart ass kid I might have considered her reaction and told myself, “I’m on my way.”

Over the years I devoured the entire Tarzan series although the addition of Jane was something of a problem. And, I read outdoor magazines and even a Boy Scout manual a family friend had brought my older brother. Coupling this with my increasing ability to spend time in the outdoors I came to realize the life of a forest hermit could be pretty short. Indeed, reading the histories of early Christian hermits who followed the lead of St. Ambrose, I found that many of them went crackers early on. Those that did survive were provided with food, and even some social contact by people seeking to absorb the merits of their “good works”. St. Benedict, the unwilling founder of the Benedictine monastic order, laid out very specific and psychologically insightful rules for those seeking to withdraw into solitude. Do so in the company of others. He was by no means the first to understand the dangers: “The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need (for society) because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) Politics 1.2.

Particularly after years in a monastic prep school, a rural monastery did seem like a good choice. But theology got in the way; I have never been able to reconcile the internal contradictions I feel I see in theos, or god based systems. And in my early years Buddhist monasteries were not easily found.

The answer turned out to be in the factual realization of my life in what sociologists would call my “family”. Beginning with my earliest ability to understand, I gradually came to realize that I was “in the family, but not of the family”. I was, de facto, being groomed for a life in which I could be physically present but spiritually apart. It was not really painful; it was just irritating that I had to wait to do something about it. So, I ate until I was big enough to leave.

Going into the military was one of the best things that could have happened. When I played high school football I really did not care which side won; I enjoyed legal contact sport. In the military, the stakes were a bit higher. But I was again fortunate in that I was able to successfully volunteer for duties that were either solo or with a two to three person team. And, I declined postings whenever possible that would have me indoors sitting at a desk.

Throughout the military, as time allowed, I took courses from two universities. And, my solitary work afforded countless hours for reading. The combination of “field work”, language abilities, and in depth immersion in other cultures led me straight to Anthropology. Interestingly, the personal and professional detachment of an anthropologist also fit a parallel career in which I had advanced quite well.

Things changed, however, when I married a Scandinavian girl and fathered a child. I still considered most people at or above the age of 12 as being on their own and responsible for their actions; encounters with armed 12 year olds around the world had settled that case. Now here I was with an utterly defenseless baby girl.

Suddenly, the world, with its hopscotch wars and perverse social and anti-ecological policies, became an all encompassing morass leveling direct threats against my baby. Being just “in the world” no longer offered the insularity it always had.

A choice seemed to appear: Leave or stay. On a several week trip throughout Scandinavia, staying with in-laws and friends, I consulted with Swedish immigration officials, a Danish academic society, and a Norwegian university – for a teaching position. Norway seemed the most likely option; I made it to the top three candidates. But, I missed the mark.

All the while, though, there were the nagging reminders that global policy meant just that. The once pristine Norwegian mountain streams from which I drew our morning pail of icy water carried increasing amounts of particulate fallout from clouds of pollution drifting around the globe. The threat of global nuclear war had one wondering how long life could be sustained in a wooden mountain cabin in northern Norway, albeit with protein aplenty on the hoof outside but little else, especially in winter to sustain a growing child. My abnormally shortened legs speak to my war time childhood malnutrition in WWII despite the circumstances of my family at the time. The Germans simply stole all the food and medicine they wanted. This, and much else was now happening on a global scale. Whether she one day became a believer or not, my daughter would grow up in this world. My choice, in some as yet undetermined small or large way, would furnish that world with opportunities for her growth or with impediments to her survival.

And so we returned to the U.S. which was becoming increasingly speckled with dead end “hippie communes” and guru du jour icons who wrote books and toured campuses. It’s easy to stand before drug addled crowds of young people and preach “Drop out” while collecting huge speaker fees for dropping in.

Many did drop out, and still do. Mass entertainment, including what passes for network news, seduces many away from thought. Technological devices, including the hand held Black Holes called SmartPhones, reduce many to the appearance that they are wearing transparent veterinary collars, or funnels, as they “socialize” even while driving.

But those people were and are easily labeled. And, where labels, of whatever kind take hold serious thought disappears. Once you are labeled you are boxed; the observer moves on to the next organism coming into view. Instead, play the enigma, the person who raises and develops questions, not the fool who claims to answer them.

Still, I drew the labels. I’ve been called communist, fascist, socialist, mafia, anarchist, Jewish, and Muslim by cultural lights too dim to see their own feet. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” as the title of a popular book once had it. But working in the world is a delicate balance. Social feedback is ironically necessary to ascertain that one has not unwittingly become of the world. It also ensures that I do not make the fatal error of believing myself.

“We are rarely proud when we are alone.” Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, 1764

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21 Comments
  1. Dana permalink

    What six year old child knows what a hermit is? Only Marco. It makes me wonder what you were like as an infant. I imagine a baby quietly observing the world around him – an old soul who “always was.”

  2. Dana permalink

    I usually hesitate to discuss my childhood in public, but I grew up hearing the title of this blog – like a broken record, unfortunately. Thank you for the opportunity to contemplate this in the manner I should have been granted all along.

  3. Thank you, Dana. Being left to myself so long gave me endless opportunity to listen, observe, and eventually read to my heart and mind’s content.

  4. It is always fascinating to read some more of your life story, Marco ! I don`t know many people (actually noone !) like you 🙂
    And i was pleasantly surprised to see that we have something more than OBEs in common !
    I was too an avid reader of the whole collection of Tarzan in my teens .
    I loved it and in a way a part of me longed for that kind of life, yet knowing i would never be able to survive a day, nope, make it 30 minutes 😉 haha… see a spider and i get a heart attack lol !
    and yes, the addition of Jane was unnecessary. Just his communion with nature and animals was more than enough for me !!
    In this sense the hermit/ monastery thing had some charm for me too, you see.

    • Thank you, FOAL. You might be pleasantly surprised by a day, or more, in a jungle. But, I agree, the hardest part of Amazon adventures was the clouds of insects. Surprisingly, clouds of mosquitoes can be so thick and aggressive in northern Scandinavia that they stampede reindeer.

  5. I too loved Tarzan and had a childhood as close to being Tarzan as possible in tiny Central Florida. The place I grew up, at one time had been one of the largest botanical gardens in the country. 30 acres of incredible gardens with enormous bamboo surrounding the estate making it a fortress. By the time I was a child the place was a completely over grown jungle. My dog and I got up at sunrise and ran the grounds till dark. I had secret hide aways built all over the grounds. Except, for what seemed to me the six worthless hours a day I had to spend in Catholic school, my life was idyllic. No rules, no people. I often wonder can a human live alone with no other human contact, and stay sane.

  6. Mary, I wonder what has happened to that idyllic place, and what people must have thought as they came across your secret hide aways. Who knows? Maybe you are responsible for the stories of Big Foot in the area.

  7. You can buy the castle, it’s still available. But it has been turned into the most hideous building I have ever seen. I can’t believe some took a place so magnificent and have done what they did.

    http://www.landandfarm.com/property/La_Casa_de_Josephina-998112/

    Besides taking off all the imported Spanish tile roof, painting the natural coquina shell exterior, carpeting over the wood imported from Italy and covering the incredible plaster work on the walls they sold off half the property for condos. The gardens with rare and exotic plants, bulldozed. The bamboo that encircle the property was about the size of an elephant’s leg. It too, just bulldozed. It was a magical childhood, though. There was even a wolf. I was the only one who knew about it and would leave food in the woods. I had the most amazing dog. He never barked at the wolf. He would alert me it was there but get very still and we would just watch it. We had a sitting pool with a fountain, unfortunately I found the wolf dead in one morning. I can’t tell you the countless wounded animals this dog would bring to me to nurse back to health. It’s the one and only talent I have. While being able to paint or play music would be nice, I’ll take it. This childhood is why to this day I prefer the company of animals to humans.

    • Mary. I don’t remember the exact year, 73 – 74? my “godfather” in Shaker Heights, Ohio was looking for a possible place to move in Florida. The castle was for sale then and was covered in the newspaper. Jim Powell (remember him?) and I went to speak to the realtor about it. I got quite a bit of literature from the realtor and sent it to my godfather. But, by that time his health was failing and he died not long after.

      Were it not in Florida, it would be a great place to consider for restoration to its original state for use as a haven for thinkers. Not entirely sure, but I think it was near the ranch where I kept my horses.

      I’ve told you before you have a book in you about this life. All of us here are waiting. Marco.

  8. I don’t remember Jim Powell. Was he a professor at Polk Community? The ridge, where the Casa was built runs from Mountain Lake to Sebring. The wealthy who built on the ridge did so for that exact purpose. It was to be a community of intellects. There are still many fascinating families who live along the ridge. Movers and shakers of their time. That was exactly their dream, a haven for thinkers. Boy, did that every take a left turn.

  9. P.S. How amazing that would have been had your godfather bought the place. I’m sure it would still be there in all its glory.

  10. Yes, Jim taught Philosophy courses at PCC. Too bad about the place. If I were able to relocate in the U.S. it would be to southwestern Washington State, west of Olympia. My wife, however, would not.

  11. PPS. Do you know how much it sold for? $75,000, all of which went to attorneys, accountants, taxes, and bills of the estate.

  12. What a terrible loss. I wish you would enlarge on your re-creation of your years there.

  13. Dana permalink

    I agree; Mary should consider a book about her experiences. This has been so fascinating to read! I’ve been on hold with Gwinnett Co. for over twenty minutes, and it was a marvelous respite (much better than twiddling thumbs).

    PCC – also the acronym for Pensacola Christian College (or as we students deemed it: Pensacola Concentration Camp).

    • Interesting. It was Polk Community College at the time, since changed to Polk State College *4 year).

  14. I am never more lonely than when surrounded by a crowd; never more serene than when completely alone. There have been studies done, I believe, which conclude that total isolation is hard on the psyche, but as I have always been alone in one way or another, it is of little concern to me. My favorite fantasies involve adventure paired with solitude.

    • I think the average person can take being alone in very small doses, for a very short time. Interviewing prisoners, I found the thing they dread most is solitary, especially “the black hole”.

      It can also be tough being among people when you must maintain a 24 hour charade. You start to wonder who you are. A fine balance between “living the legend” and believing the legend.

  15. Dana permalink

    I have had around three times in my life where I have had to “live the legend” for my own survival, but not as a career of course. Once it was for a year. Since it was in a place where suspicion, mistrust, and paranoia were not only rampant, but also the norm, I never even attempted to find someone living as I was. It wasn’t easy to determine who might be friend or foe.

    I deliberately became an entirely different person, and although it wasn’t particularly difficult, it was indeed very lonely. The majority of my conversations were feigned. Sometimes I wonder how this might have affected a young teenager who might normally have a social life. Perhaps it was a beneficial that I was already an introvert.

  16. Dana permalink

    I should add, I did “believe the legend” at times, forgetting who I was. This also occurred once I returned home. I have always wondered why that happened.

  17. Dana, you did what you had to do to survive, and we are all the better for it. It was beneficial that you were introverted enough to, most of the time, retain your identity. Of course, you are also sensitive to the need to avoid putting everyone into the “other” box.

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