Tag Archives: Philosophy

The Adventure of Life

“Life is an adventure,” so they say.  It is a commonplace that is almost banal, ranking right up there with “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”  But, I find it really is an adventure which takes place when one begins to venture beyond the narrow confines of the way one was taught to see…and feel…the world.  But the real challenge lies in the very difficult task of becoming aware of this narrow prism through which one views the world, how the tyranny of assumptions shapes our fundamental perceptions of the world.  And to ask one to see these premises that shapes this world view is like asking a fish to see water.

It must be noted by those of us who swim in the aether of cerebral thought that most people in the world cannot ever make this meta-cognitive leap; and for them to do so would be catastrophic for human culture.  The day-to-day grind of reality depends on people who “mindlessly” go through the motions of their daily life without questioning the “basic assumptions” that I am putting on the table here.  And furthermore, for me to use the term “mindless” here merits caution as I do have a contempt gene which is too often near the surface!

We are tribal creatures and the tribal rituals are easily analyzed by people like myself who have lived their whole life “off the grid” in some fashion.  (I think one term for people like me is “pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals” or perhaps more accurately “alienated.”)   But we are a tribe, a global tribe composed of smaller tribes who must somehow find a way to live together with a modicum of harmony.  But each tribe has an innate tendency to not see beyond the safe confines of its basic assumptions and each member of that tribe learns to drink the same “kool-aid.”  That is what makes it a tribe.

But the adventure of life starts when we realize that we have “drank the kool-aid” in some fashion and are shaped by basic assumptions given to us by our culture.  Then we can begin to find a bit of freedom and can begin to play with reality.  Yes, we can even begin to “play with our self” (wink, wink) and with the beautiful human and natural world that we find ourselves in, a beautiful “Garden of Eden” in some sense.

However, it is scary!  We are hard-wired to live within those “safe confines” and to suddenly realize we are “off the reservation” can easily be a Pyrrhic victory.  To take a quantum leap here, it will ultimately bring us to the Shakespearean issue of “to be, or not to be” and can even bring one to the point of suicide.  For it is gut-wrenchingly painful to realize that one does not belong to the tribe, to be deprived of that “fig-leaf,” and to stand there on that heath like King Lear, pelted by that pitiless storm, naked as a jay-bird.

This is where faith comes in for me.  But the temptation here is to take one’s tribal faith, make a fanatical investment or re-investment in it, and hold on “come hell or high water.”  And all fanaticism (i.e., “addiction) has its roots with this deep-seated existential loneliness.  The tribal religion that my culture offered me was the Judeo-Christian tradition and I have certainly allowed it to be in my life the “opiate” that Karl Marx described.  But opiate does not work for me anymore…or at least that one does not! (I do drink too much!)  I find that my “tribal religion” offers symbols, stories, traditions that are very valuable as I stand here on this heath with King Lear and others and find that there is hope and even purpose.  This “adventure” I am discovering now beyond those aforementioned “confines” involves death, for pushing limits always involves a death-wish of some sort but the Christian tradition teaches that death and live are intertwined and that to “die” is to “live.”  To put it succinctly, there is no “life” without “death.”  Oh yes, there is existence but there is no experience of human-ness, being a live body and soul for this brief moment we have in this time-space continuum.  This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples who wanted to delay going with him for to help with a burial party, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

However, here is an important point that I’ve already touched on.  It is easy to interpret that quip from Jesus to mean that everyone else in the world who did not follow him was “dead” and therefore would “burn in hell one day.”  That is how I was taught!  But I don’t think so.  Jesus was playing with words, telling his disciples that they needed to follow him and let the burial party take care of its business, that it did not need them.  Jesus was saying that the rest of the world was okay and “dead” was only a metaphor to say they were not amenable to his teachings, that their role in life was to see things differently and to live different lives within “safe confines.”  Jesus realized that the “adventure” I’ve described here was not for everybody but that their life also was “ok”. 

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Simone Weil and Detachment

Simone Weil once said, “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can only be attained by someone who is detached.” I have not read Weil at length though I think I will, having come across this statement this morning. And though I’m going to be critical of the tenor of her thought, I deeply admire her passionate faith and stubborn commitment to her beliefs. She definitely thought “out of the box” and, yes, I’m sure that her “god spot” was usually in over-drive. Yes, if prozac had existed back then, she could have had the gentle life of a nun, or school marm, or doting mother to occupy that mind that was fated to run amok with “big thoughts.”

I too am “detached” much like Ms. Weil but I have come to believe that one needs to be careful with any approach to life lest he/she take it (and self) too seriously and thus relegate everyone else to the category of “them” where, I am sure, there will always be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Even more so, a clinical awareness would have told Ms. Weil just how careful she needed to be with this “detachment.”

Life is to be lived and not merely noted. This detachment is a necessary stance that we need to bring to life and is sorely lacking so often. But too much of it will leave one in the position of Emily Dickinson who lived her cloistered life in her father’s attic, noting on one occasion, “Life is over there, on a shelf.” She saw life as a mere curio on the shelf for idle amusement; and, yes, I’m glad she lived her life that way as it provided us stunning poetic observations about life. But the price tag for my dear friend Emily was a very isolated and lonely life.

This detached perspective on life usually involves an analytical mind, a mind which is obsessed with making “observations” which is merely imposing the categories of one’s own subjective imprisonment onto other people. And, “mea culpa” but mercifully I have learned, and will continue to learn how to turn this feature of my cognitive apparatus off from time to time and allow others to “be” in their own right.

This does not mean that my “detachment” is wrong. It is my “gift” though I am not for sure what I have done with it or will and sometimes in private reverie fear I will one day stand before that Great White Throne and hear God say, “Well, IlliterateLew, that is not what I had in mind for you at all!” This is just who I am and it carries a price as does any stance in life, any perspective, or “cognitive apparatus” that we trot out each day of our life. But I must remember as must each of us that there is always another way of looking at the world and each day and moment of our life we need to be conscious of the need to open up our world view and give more space to some of the people we meet and especially to the ones who closest to us. I recently read someone who suggested that the real, etymological meaning of the New Testament Word “repentance” was to “let go of your small mind” and take on a larger mind that is more inclusive. In other words, Jesus was saying, “Hey, look at life a different way. That person or persons who you have subjected to banishment into “them” need to be included, to be embraced by your approach to the world.”

 

Wordsworth and a “Big Thought”

From, “LINES COMPOSED NEAR TINTERN ABBEY” BY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the midst of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Oh how I love “big thoughts,” those lofty ideas that carry me away and as they do so facilitate a grounding in this beautiful world. Beware thoughts that do otherwise! In the second line of this excerpt, I would assign a capital “P” for I think he is referring to a Presence which is actually the very Ground of our Being, the ineffable “Wholly Other” which is paradoxically deeply ingrained in our own mortal heart and in the warp-and-woof of our very life. And I see this “Presence” in others from time to time, even more so in recent years as I’ve allowed it to find more expression in my own life. And, yes, I feel this “Presence” is very disturbing though I can’t really say that I’ve graduated yet to the “joy” element. I do find joy in life, and I do feel joy, that I feel…and intuit…that there is some dimension of this experience which Wordsworth knew about that still eludes me.

 

Oscar Wilde “Playing” with Reality

I am currently reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. I have seen the movie years ago and loved it; but the novel itself has so much more to offer. Wilde has an as astute grasp of human culture in the 19th century and could eloquently convey which way the winds were blowing. He, and other astute individuals, certainly had some insight into what was going to unfold in the 20th century.

For example, modern science was toying with human culture at the time and leaving it in the throes of relativism, ambivalence, and uncertainty. Truth, and even reality itself, came to be seen as paradoxical, leading Wilde to declare in this novel, “The way of paradoxes is the way of Truth. To test reality, we must see it on the tight rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them.” T. S. Eliot would later echo this perspective on truth, declaring that to know truth, or reality, we must “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain, and therefore the fittest for renunciation.” (The Four Quartets)

So, today, a century plus from Wilde’s death, we live in the tumult of what he, “modern” science of his day, and literary license would produce. We wrestle with the question of, “What is real and what is unreal?” In my country (the United States) I feel that this is the essential issue that divides the country, that is wreaking havoc on our political system, and even spreading confusion within the erstwhile hermetically sealed “safe” confines of the Republican party.

And, ultimately I feel we must discover that “Real” is apprehended only by faith and once apprehended, we have to realize that we don’t actually “apprehend” it at all. We only intuit it, “faith” it, and hope for it. But, that does not diminish the power of its Presence. It merely humbles us, reminding us of the wisdom of the Apostle Paul, “We see through a glass darkly.” But this Presence is with us, and in us, each day as we seek to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

 

The Power of the Word

I love words! Words make us human. That ability to symbolize re our subjective experience and assign meaning to that domain is just incredibly fascinating to me. And as we assign meanings to our experience we find connection with others, we discover that they too use the same sounds to refer to the same experiences…more or less! And how did that ever happen and why does it continue? Yes, it is a neurological issue; but, ultimately it is a philosophical and spiritual issue.

(Let me share a relevant personal anecdote. Years ago in a casual conversation a friend of mine dropped an aside, “Well, our name is just a sound we learned to respond to.” This “word” of his spoke to me and continues to do so. It resonated and I realized what he meant, that my very name “Lewis” was merely a sound that “I” had learned to respond to at about the age of one and a half or two years. My “I” (a rudimentary ego) preceded that moment in some shape, form, or fashion but when I was able to associate that subjective experience with the sound “Lewis” I basically joined the human race.)

Poets are one of God’s gifts to us as they can play with words and teach us about meaning. They can use words and use them skillfully and artistically—with spiritual finesse—and usher us into realms of meaning which would otherwise be hidden. Here is a sample from one of them that I have discovered in the blog-o-sphere (enerihot.wordpress.com):

I Write Because
by Irene Toh

Here it comes: a manifesto.
I write because words are
necessary shadows, the way
they augment light that
shines on every thing.

I write because any object
may become a subject
by simple appreciation,
being talked about so
it becomes the light.

I write because after god,
we speak things into creation,
because day turns into night,
because after you there’s no
one who is truly you and
words are dying stars.

And then here is another example from one of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg:

Precious Moments

Bright conversations are transient as rainbows.
Speech requires blood and air to make it.
Before the word comes off the end of the tongue,
While the diaphragms of flesh negotiate the word,
In the moment of doom when the word forms,
It is born, alive, registering an imprint—
Afterward it is a mummy, a dry fact, done and gone.
The warning holds yet: Speak now or forever hold your peace.
Ecce homo had meanings: Behold the man! Look at him! Dying he lives and speaks.

Quelling our “howling appetites”

Our life task is calming the savage beast that lives within, that dimension of life which W. H. Auden described as, “our howling appetites.” This is a battle that we fight individually and collectively. As a nation, for example, we should ask, “How can we satisfy our hunger without becoming rapacious?” And with our colonial past, we definitely have a history of rapacity as does most of the rest of the “developed” world.

The 8th century Indian poet Shantideva put it this way:

Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But (just) leather on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it

Likewise it is not possible for me
To restrain the external course of things
But should I restrain this mind of mine
What would be the need to restrain all else?
(Shantideva)

The writer of Proverbs captured the truth in these two verses, “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls” (25:28); and, “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (25:28)  Or, as someone else has said, “We can’t change the world, but we can change the eyes through which we view the world.”   And I conclude with my oft-quoted word from Auden, “We wage the war we are.”

Failure is More Important than Success

“Failure is more important than success because it brings intelligence to light the bony structure of the universe.” (E. L. Mayo)

I’ve always been captivated by this poem though I’m not for sure I understand it.  I just intuitively know that it conveys great wisdom and wisdom is always complicated, paradoxical, and convoluted.

Failure is necessary as it counters our obsession with “success.”  Oh, we need success and our species has been very “successful” in so many respects.  We have created so much stuff and have made our life so much easier, perhaps too easy in ways.  Auden noted, “We have made our lives safer than we can bear.”  But it is the failures that humble us and teach us that there is more to life than “stuff”.  These “failures” can show us a qualitative intelligence that allows us to see the graciousness of life and without this insight the “structure of the universe” is quite “bony.”