The Kosmos by Phoenix

“Kosmos” probably looks like a misspelling, but amazingly, it isn’t. “Cosmos” is differentiated from “Kosmos,” in that the cosmos is a definition and reference to all of the physical stuff in the universe, while “kosmos” represents everything in the universe, including the supernatural, spiritual, transcendental, and abstract. It is an ancient Greek distinction. This used to be what thinkers such as the Pre-Socratics thought about, as pointed out by the philosopher Ken Wilber, this approach of which slowly faded through time, as the concept of teleology was ripped out of Newtonian physics, and the world seemed to be more and more clockwork (an approach of which was done to stop asking the “why” of things and simply ask the “how”). Even with the complexities of quantum mechanics, we haven’t quite moved past this clockwork model.

On first glance, it’s easy to be afraid of the question of, where do we fit in the cosmos, what is our purpose in the cosmos, what are we doing in the cosmos, are we safe in the cosmos, etc. But this is the wrong word to use. Kosmos should be the way in which we think about it. Not because we need to believe in the soul (some thinkers would in fact argue not just against the existence of the soul, but a belief in the soul), but because it doesn’t hurt to think about the transcendental aspects of our existence. The universe is more than just “stuff.” Even if we don’t know how to reconcile Cartesian dualism, and we doubt the existence of our minds, it’s hard not to feel sometimes that there is a pull and sway to things, that things happen for a reason. You may have your cold and hardcore rationalist convince you that there sometimes is no “meaning” to the things and events that happen, because this imputation of meaning is itself a cognitive bias, but I think we can slowly pull that argument apart on further inspection.

I talk about the spiritual, the transcendent, the magical, the soulful, because I think this is what The Legacy Initiative allows me to accomplish, in very complex and yet nuanced ways.

This next statement will sound ironic after what I just said, but here it goes: Today (on March 5, 2016) was the hardest outreach I’ve ever done. I’ll explain why, and then comment on it to show why this was an important experience for me.

I love The Legacy Initiative. I was happy I was going to get to spend more time with Travis, as he was going to give me a ride, and see the rest of my Legacy family in the kitchen, to make the burritos. But the strange thing was, I was slightly melancholic. Even during the process of preparing and assembling for the outreach, this melancholy creeped in, this confusion creeped in, and I had to take breaks to work on my novel in verse The Beautiful Mythology, working on a poem where the main character gets to meet Edgar Allan Poe, and where his friend Kes keeps him company and reminds him he’s not alone. And I knew I wasn’t alone: I was with my friends, I was with a non-profit that is literally family to me. The melancholy came from previous and current events in my life that I was trying to sort through, trying to figure out, that for whatever reason continued as I worked in the kitchen.

Indeed, I felt loss. I was asking, what was my place in the Kosmos? What if Legacy knew I wasn’t as well-put together as I make myself out to be? What if they knew? What if they knew everything, all my doubts, my fears, my hopes, my aspirations, my dreams, my failures, my confusions? I could still feel the doubts of some of the others, just doubts in general about what greed and vices have done to destroy our world. I also found out I wasn’t going to be included in a documentary, the choice itself of which I didn’t have a problem with (as indeed, my interview didn’t fit the goal of the narrative, a necessary creative decision on the part of the producer), but it still stung in the sense that it felt my story had been excluded: I struggle with feelings of ostracism and am sensitive to it, even in benign situations, because I have been outside the system for so long, in a way that is highly alienating and even traumatic, and prevents for me a healthy integration into society.

All of this wasn’t a bad experience, to be clear: But my mind was a million miles away, and I couldn’t engage with my family the way I wanted to. But I was determined to get through it, and though I didn’t let on that anything was wrong, I felt like I could be doing better, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.

It’s easy in moments like this to believe that the universe is meaningless, or even Godless, if you will: That’s why Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead is so troubling, because we assume that we have murdered our own meaning! But being the kind of thinker I am, thinking about the Kosmos, I am not afraid to think about the transcendent. I have appreciated for a long time the Buddhist bent to some aspects of The Legacy Initiative, as well as the other ways in which we invite the spiritual (such as channeling the inspiration of Father Greg Boyle), and I try to think that we have a purpose, that suffering isn’t just something that happens, that we can do things, that we can transcend by working together. Which I do every time I am with Legacy Initiative, even when I’m distracted and confused. We aren’t a blip in the scheme of existence, and while some have chosen to make the claim that we are, it doesn’t by any means negate the inherent meaning and value that we have as we struggle with the grand will of the Kosmos and struggle to transcend ourselves and our environment and our world, and seek to understand.

I rode with Charity back into town, and commenced the outreach. It went smoothly at the beginning: I explained what we were doing to my squad, I’d rehearsed it many times before, and I was confident I could do it. But in the back of my mind, the fear was there, the confusion was there: What am I doing in the Kosmos? Can I transcend? Or is my brain a neurobiological nightmare?

Then it slowly fell apart.

I tried to debrief our crew when we met the first person affected by homelessness, and I don’t remember what happened after, because immediately, one of the volunteers undermined my approach by saying that, “In our country, approaching someone in a group is asking for trouble.” I understood the fear and the reason for this concern, but I a) had little control over the immediate movement of the group despite my debriefing, and b) felt as though this was a commentary on my effectiveness as a leader, which stung because I put my life in this work. Maybe this wasn’t the intent, but I thought the incorporation of such intense fear and anxiety into our outreach wasn’t going to be helpful for a productive outreach, and man, was I doing my absolute best to keep everyone where they needed to be, safe and efficient.

Already, I was starting to internalize this attitude of fear, without being aware of it, and it started to manifest as intensity.

One person I talked to was sympathetic to my approach, and he helped, however, but it didn’t change the way the rest of the outreach went.

I explained that we weren’t afraid of the homeless population. Personally, I am not afraid of the homeless, but I am afraid of spontaneous confrontation and confusion (as our actions are countercultural and thereby unexpected, causing fear), perhaps even escalation, and I certainly want to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Some of the people we serve can be stand-offish. I know this is because they are living in fear and are constantly mobile and tired and hungry, but when other volunteers undermine my approach in various ways, it makes me wary and uncertain.

We went to the library, did pretty well there, though I felt that I was frustrating many of the people we were serving (a blow because they are the reason I am there). This was not the case with the volunteers, who were much better at engaging the population, which was a blow to my already fragile mindset because I felt as though I was taking the blows for the team: Assessing the situation to make it more friendly for the volunteers: Literally taking in the approaching negativity to soften it for the rest of the team.

Indeed, in an interview I watched with Cornel West, the idea of moral choices as coming at a cost is huge. When we strive for environmental, social, or some other kind of justice, there will always be a cost, or otherwise there wouldn’t be a moral choice. But indeed, the cost, the price, was more than I was ready for. My group kept undermining my efforts with cagey rhetoric, which caught me off guard. I understand there can be contempt for leaders (that comes naturally when someone is trying to take charge and be responsible for a group of people), but I felt it went deeper: It was contempt for Legacy, and what we do as Legacy.

Indeed, here is an example of what I mean: At one point, even after I explicitly said that we needed to stick together as a group until we arrived back, a person opted to leave when we were at the library. I explained it wasn’t advisable, and tried to talk them down, but they were certain, so I had to comply out of respect. But people kept saying, sardonically, “We’re family, and we’re worried about you and your safety,” which was a direct blow to Legacy’s adoption of Greg Boyle’s idea of kinship, and our emphasis on looking out for each other. I don’t think comments like this were slight and incidental, and certainly they weren’t harmless. They would seem that way, maybe as I transcript them here, but in the moment, these comments had a higher charge and weight to them that you’d have to be there to feel.

Thankfully, the supportive volunteer listened to my lecture about the philosopher Roger Scruton’s non-Republican conservatism, his idea where he believes in tradition and seeks to uphold that as a foundation. He listened to me when I said there is the sacred, as Scruton would say, and the way we undermine the sacred, even with casual comments, can do a significant amount of damage to what we are trying to uphold.

We continued on to The Rescue Mission. I kept reading the situation, assessing, thinking on my feet, doing my best, reading. I felt I was doing well, but doing this work prevented me from engaging more fully with the homeless themselves and the volunteers, because I was internalizing all of the confusion that this outreach work can sometimes bring, and was bringing in this particular instance with the comments and confusing attitudes. This led to a volunteer asking if I was stressed out: I wasn’t stressed, I told her, I was just intense. I explained this was because I was naïve at the beginning of my outreach work way back when I started, and too open, which was ironically more off-putting to the people we serve. And while this is true, and while I would say I wasn’t stressed with this outreach and this work, I was disappointed with the overall behavior and attitude of the group.

I could go on about such destructive behaviors towards our cause, but I will stick with one final downer: I heard two of the volunteers say that they weren’t going to serve others who “looked like they were doing a drug deal,” while the other volunteers were. I didn’t even know what to say to this, so I kept silent, but I knew I needed to say something. I have now decided I will pocket this discussion for future refutation. Although I do not know much about drug addiction and it can be intimidating for me, I do not pass judgement. As Travis said, this behavior by the volunteers was simply “nasty,” it wasn’t even merely apathetic. I agree, on further reflection: This wasn’t the way to handle the situation, and it isn’t how Legacy operates, what Legacy operates as, the moral compass we use to guide our decisions. Passing your threshold of comfort is one thing (meaning they were free not to serve), but the attitude was not acceptable, and if I have to explain why that is the case, then I think my point of what my values are and what the values of The Legacy Initiative are about has been missed sorely.

Travis gave me a ride back, and during all of this, my head was swirling with thoughts and ideas and doubt and even fear, the very thing that Legacy tries to combat internally, so as not to undermine what we are about. I talked to my friend John, a man we serve as well who is a good friend to Legacy, and though I was empathetic to what he said, it made me sad all he had to say, because it reaffirmed the many doubts I’d been encountering the whole day, about whether things could really change for the better.

Travis had sound advice, though. Travis could look at my perspective objectively and with compassion. He told me there are fractures in the systems that supposedly help (or don’t help) these populations and the general people of the world, and that Legacy Initiative is about cultural consciousness, not simply about handing out burritos. This goes way deeper than just doing work in the kitchen making burritos. It’s deep and meaningful and purposeful, a way of getting in touch with the Kosmos. Travis understood that this is part of the process: We learn. We continue to learn. It’s growth, growing pains. It’s possible sometimes to get overconfident. It’s also possible sometimes to get discouraged and doubtful, and even devalue yourself. I keep seeing the same thing over and over again, and sometimes it feels like things aren’t getting better, like you’re running up against a wall. But Travis was sound, as always, his Batman figure/character, who kept reminding me that I’m in this, and I’m doing this for the right reasons, and the costs are very real. And that’s the thing about Batman, right? Indeed, he’s so in tune with the Kosmos that he isn’t innocent and naïve like Superman: He isn’t good inside, and that’s exactly why he’d corrupt: Just one more joke by the Joker or one more ounce of fear induced by the Scarecrow, and Batman is pushed over the edge: He only has his will to keep him honest in corrupt Gotham, working in the world of gray, a world where things are never easy, and where you pay the price to do the right thing, even if you are incredibly angry with the way things are: Though you let that feed your strength of will, even when you’re fed up with it all and burnt-out.

I am naïve. I’m hopelessly innocent about the things that really matter. But I’m also hopelessly careful, and care about the things that matter, which is why I keep fighting. It all exists for a reason: not a mere cosmos, but a Kosmos, full of meaning and transcendence, if we just look for it and get past our doubts and fears and feelings of hopelessness and despair and anger.

The final blow was a rejection letter from an organization that serves homeless youth, a job I’ve wanted for years, but that hasn’t happened. It was a blow; it frustrated me, it felt cruel they sent a rejection letter when they said after I submitted the resume that they’d get in touch if they felt you “matched their requirements,” implying they’d leave you alone if they weren’t interested. But I thought back to Travis saying we can see the fractures in the system, and we’re pointing them out, and this gave me hope: It’s better that I do not work for this organization, so as not to become part of the problem just to make a living wage. Charity told me that I’m not alone in my struggle with such organizations. Tracy told me he’s grateful to know me. And Tedd had given me a nice white Adidas shirt earlier that day, out of love and respect for me and my struggles. Indeed, then, this all led me to believe I have the grassroots organization of Legacy Initiative by my side, and I may not be where I want to be, I may still have fear, but for now, I’m exactly where I need to be, and I understand the Kosmos just as much as I need to make all the difference in the grand galaxy we live in, in the Kosmos.

And that’s enough of an understanding and teleology: It’s meaningful enough.

Kosmos Photo