What Swamps Teach Us about Spiritual Life

By George Gantz

 

Our world seems to be mired in anxiety and fear; and civic discourse has degenerated to accusations, outright lies, and rhetoric. While we hear calls to “drain the swamp,” any common understanding of what that means, and a willing consensus required to achieve it, seems to elude us. Perhaps we are looking at the situation from too narrow a perspective. It is not just our politicians who are lost in the marsh; it is our spiritual life, too.

The English language is full of references to the soggy, wet places of the world. Have you ever gotten tangled up “in the weeds”? Or perhaps someone you know is “stuck in the mud” (or perhaps is a “stick-in-the-mud”)? Recently, we have heard calls to “drain the swamp” of Washington DC lobbyists and political insiders. These sayings all have a common origin: the idea that marshy places should be avoided, lest we become entrenched in the unpleasantness they represent. While modern environmental science is struggling to change this negative narrative about “wetlands,” there are natural contextual explanations for it. The negative imagery is quite powerful, and it holds true on a variety of levels: from natural to psychological, societal, and spiritual. Let’s unpack these different layers of meaning.

The Nature of Wetlands

Marshes, mires, and swamps—collectively referred to as “wetlands”—are essential natural features found all around the globe. They often develop wherever the land intersects major bodies of water, at the interface, as water from terrestrial sources makes its way toward the sea. Technically, marshes are characterized by grassy or shrub-like vegetation, while swamps feature trees. Mires, or bogs, are acidic and contain accumulated humus deposits known as peat.

Marshes are often difficult to access and to maneuver in (especially for us humans). The water usually moves slowly and may be brackish, or salty. Typically, oxygen levels are low, a condition to which indigenous species adapt. Reeds, for example, grow hollow stems for sucking oxygen to their root structures. Marshes do, however, provide useful water storage and filtration functions: they fill up with water in rainy periods and drain water downstream in dry periods; and they serve as a filter and a sink basin for sediments and pollutants.

Marshes can be highly productive biologically. But they can be quite unpleasant and inhospitable as well, as some of that productivity includes a variety of parasites, leeches, spiders, snakes, and even alligators. Since marsh waters move slowly, oxygen may be depleted by respiration and decomposition, particularly when pollution levels are high. Hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, may result, causing the death of fish and invertebrates. When decomposition turns anaerobic, fetid odors are produced. This all helps explain the negative reputation held by marshes, mires, and swamps. And as a result, they have become fertile sources for our imaginative depiction of the horrors of stagnation.
Marshes and their renewing properties are also vulnerable to degradation if the natural water cycles are disrupted, and their historically negative reputation has made them a great target for human intervention. We have been very aggressive in intentional filling and draining, damming for flood control, water withdrawals, agricultural and urban development, and pollution. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, perhaps half of all the marshes in the United States were drained or destroyed prior to 1970. And that destruction has continued. A Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) study reported that in the five years between 2004 and 2009, almost one percent of coastal wetlands disappeared as a result of development pressures and silviculture (human-planned forests) expansion.

Psychological Stagnation

Stagnation is defined simply as “a state of not flowing,” yet our imagination associates the word with the unpleasant “marshy” qualities of death and decay. In the natural world, the low-oxygen conditions of stagnation are unfavorable to growth and change, and they give rise to illness and death. In the psychological sense, stagnation refers to the similar condition of being emotionally or rationally stuck or stunted. Without the ability to renew ourselves by absorbing new thoughts, ideas, experiences, and emotions, our vitality and resilience stagnate.

The story of Narcissus offers a good example. Narcissus was a beautiful Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection. He became so enamored of his image that he forgot about food and rest, and he eventually died. This story is the origin of the modern personality diagnosis of narcissism, an excessive pre-occupation with self-gratification and self-image. Some current psychological research suggests that our omnipresent digital environment and our excessive attention to social media, in particular, promote narcissistic tendencies.

Depression is another psychological condition that represents the quality of stagnation, as it involves getting “stuck” in negative thought patterns and losing the motivation and energy to reach out to others or try something new. While the causes of depression may be varied and difficult to assess, it is clear that extreme emotional distress and feelings of isolation and alienation are shared by many: depression is on the rise worldwide, as is suicide, an ultimate and tragic statement of hopelessness. As we will see below, one key to preventing psychological stagnation may be found in better understanding our spiritual condition.

Societal Entrenchment

In economics and politics, marsh-like stagnation is often referred to as entrenchment. The word entrench simply means “to put in a trench,” which is suggestive of being stuck or tightly confined. A corporate management team may become entrenched, for example, if its members stick too closely together and refuse to bring in outside people or outside ideas. Entrenchment can be deadly for a business enterprise when upstart competitors with new and better ideas come along. An individual, a group, or an entire enterprise can get “mired in the weeds” arguing about minutiae while in the midst of a crisis. Stuck in this way, they are unable to break through an impasse or develop a realistic plan forward. As the saying goes, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” In the broader economic sense, monopolies, cartels, price-fixing, and insider trading represent different forms of entrenchment; they are all disastrous for productivity, creativity, and healthy markets.

In the political arena, entrenchment refers to the condition in which incumbents or small, tightly controlled elite groups are able to dominate and control the political process. By cutting out other participants, eliminating dissent, and rejecting new ideas, these groups set the agenda and determine the outcomes—all in their own favor. As a result, what is lost is any sense of renewal or accountability to the citizens whom the government is presumed to serve. It is on this basis that our nation’s capital is described as a swamp, dominated by professional politicians, who have been in office a long time, and their enablers, the lobbyists who wield immense war chests of campaign funds and who trade in secrets and inside information. The entrenchment narrative has become more prevalent in recent years, as indicated by the large volume of books and articles that talk about governments behaving as oligarchies, kleptocracies, or autocracies.

The common thread in our negative image of wetlands, psychological stagnation, and societal entrenchment is this: when what is pure and fresh—whether it be water, our emotions, or our relationships with others—does not flow into each of these systems, the system ceases to thrive and grow and goes into decomposition and decay.

But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. (Ezekiel 47:11) 

Our Spiritual Condition

Emanuel Swedenborg devoted much of his writing to the idea of spiritual correspondences. In a spiritual sense, flowing water is living truth. When the flow of water stops, this truth becomes stagnant and spiritual life dies. Being stuck in the marsh spiritually means becoming confirmed in falsities.

Those who cannot be reformed because they are in the falsities of evil are signified by “the miry places and marshes that are not healed, but are given to salt.” (Apocalypse Explained §513:7)

“To be given to salt” signif[ies] not to receive spiritual life, but to remain in a life merely natural, which, separate from spiritual life, is defiled by falsities and evils, which are “miry places” and “marshes.” (Apocalypse Explained §342:7)

One common feature of a healthy spiritual life is the belief in and commitment to a truth that is higher than just the laws that govern the natural world. Out of one’s personal commitment to a transcendent realm (the infinite) or agent (God), many blessings can flow. These include a sense of purpose, feelings of joy and gratitude, and the willingness to improve the world and the lives of those around us with love. Without such an affirmative commitment, our understanding of life is by definition constrained to the finite realm of physical space and time. If we do not believe in and are not open to spiritual ideas and experiences, then we destroy our potential to receive any inflow of such ideas and experiences.

Meaning and purpose, as they relate to Creation as a whole or to our lives in particular, become limited and relative only to the physical parts of experience. Some thinkers take this to an extreme, framing meaning and purpose as mere illusions. Love becomes just a biological function. Improving the world is defined in purely materialistic terms. This is the condition referred to in Ezekiel, above, where one’s spirit has been given to salt.

A commitment to the idea that there is no spiritual life—that the natural world is all there is—is destructive to spiritual life. When we are confirmed in this falsity, any goodness that we might see, feel, or experience is sucked out of life. We are stuck in the marsh and cannot be spiritually reformed, cleansed, and healed.

There is nothing more delightful than a marshy, and also a urinous [stink] to those who have confirmed themselves in falsities, and have extinguished in themselves the affection for truth. (Apocalypse Explained §659:5)

Conclusion

By following the chain of correspondences, we can identify solutions to the various forms of stagnation. As we know from the natural world, fresh water must continue to flow in and through the marsh in order to keep it healthy and biologically productive. In addition, external pollutants must be limited to what the marsh can absorb.

Similarly, our emotional and psychological lives need to include appropriate amounts of openness, recreation, and renewal in order for us to remain healthy. We need to balance our internal preoccupations with outward companionship, aesthetic experiences, and learning opportunities; and we need to avoid the “pollutants” of excessive stimulation, addiction, obsession, and distraction.

In society, we need to foster and support institutions that are resilient, responsive, and open to new people and new ideas. This requires that we go against our natural tendencies toward complacency and complicity and that we resist the temptations of using institutions for personal gain, as all of these behaviors pollute civic life.

To grow spiritually, we need to be open to transcendent possibilities, searching for knowledge and experiences that enrich our appreciation of spiritual truth. If we close ourselves off to spiritual ideas and to the possibility of having spiritual experiences, then our spiritual life will be deprived of sustenance and will decay.

If our spiritual life is “stuck,” then where is the foundation for a healthy psychological and emotional experience? When we focus on our own inadequacies or our personal gratifications, we undermine our opportunities to learn, to share love, and to be a full participant in our community. A healthy spiritual life is the wellspring for a healthy psychological and emotional life. It also sustains the virtues essential for a vibrant and thriving civic life: the commitment to truth and the dedication to the well-being of those we are responsible for serving.

Without a healthy civic life, we will never be able to agree on the rules and the practices that will assure that clean water flows into all our different marshes, refreshing, renewing, and rejuvenating the life that exists within them.

It all ends where it begins: with the water of truth that is the source of life.

  

George Gantz is a writer and philosopher at Spiral Inquiry and directs the Swedenborg Center Concord (SCC), a non-denominational educational project supported by the New Church of Concord, Massachusetts, that seeks to integrate the knowledge of science with the wisdom of religion.

 

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