I’ve been thinking about the winter storm that occurred here recently. It was particularly devastating, heavy wet snow bending and snapping off 50-year-old trees and creating nearly impossible traveling conditions that left many of us home-bound longer than we’re used to. The event has me thinking about my relationship with the natural world.
I know Nature’s sublimity appears on nearly a daily basis: tornadoes, hurricanes, deadly fires, but the reality of experiencing it firsthand gives the event greater significance. My usual compatibility with nature has been upset. I’m experiencing a disconnect, an inclination to find nature as hostile rather than nurturing.
Avoiding a hostile natural environment may mean self-imposed isolation. Cocooning oneself into interior spaces might result in dark contemplations, socially unhealthy behaviors detrimental to one’s well-being. On the upside, I suspect the deeply insightful writings of the likes of Knute Hamsen and Soren Kierkegaard or the disturbing yet moving paintings of Edvard Munch wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the challenges they had to face living in the northern climes.
I’ve been revisiting the ideas of the dream/reality conundrum as depicted in the Matrix scifi stories. The dream state the films present is so intensely real, there are no give aways, no non-contextual interludes as often happens in actual dreams. The dreamer is unaware that he is physically inactive and sedated, kept alive by chemical means, he’s living a dream.
Anyway, I’ve been finding myself lately mentally wandering off, envisioning imaginary places and situations I’m pretty sure never existed or occurred. But, upon further consideration perhaps these memories are in fact reality and what I’m presently experiencing with pencil in hand is a dream.
I’m really not too concerned, though, because in either case, real or imagined, my experiences are fairly pleasant.
The disenchantment with and removal, these days, of monuments to past figures of note whose behaviors, in retrospect, are being found wanting has me in mind of a recent trip I took to eastern Europe. After the fall of the Soviet Union a massive effort to remove the statuary of the communist elite found in most every village led to the creation of a ‘theme park’ near Vilnius in Lithuania. Large scale sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and lesser known figures were situated in a park-like setting with walking paths inviting public viewing. With apparent tongue-in-cheek the park’s designers circled the figures within a moat, high barbed wire fence and guard towers. It is an attempt, I suspect, to remember their past in a proper context.
Fall season celebrations remind me of the deeply ingrained inclinations of people to hold onto ideas of the supernatural. I’ve been wondering if, beyond the dogmas of organized religions, do all reasonably sensitive human beings sense the existence of a presence beyond yet within the physical universe, a presence within all beings that accounts for spirit and vitality? A life-force simply unattributable to biological composition alone, an Other, without singularity, ethereal, ineffable, beyond definition?
Such an awareness, I think, might provide a useful perspective when one is experiencing the travails of daily life.
Numerous paintings have been done over the centuries of peasant celebrations, often in wooded settings, where revelry is apparent, debauchery implied. The imagery captures times, sometimes after harvest when food has become abundant after the lean months before, other depictions suggesting spring when mankind recognized the rebirth of nature and the fecundity it implies.
The ancient Greeks depicted the animal nature released during these times of celebration as animal/human composites: satyrs, fauns, nymphs, suggesting, I guess, that the human inclination to give into one’s natural urges was less than civilized.
There are some of us, I suppose, who might benefit from such emotional release, civilization overlaying, as it does, a blanketing guilt upon those who might pursue such Bacchanolic revelry. Maybe we should rethink our moral priorities in the interest of mental health.
I’ve been reading lately about the perpetuation of disinformation that social media has allowed to spread quickly and widely these days. Sometimes, deliberately conjured false narratives based on non-existent facts and perpetrated by bad actors are sought out for various reasons from entertainment to reinforcement of intuited beliefs of deep state conspiracy.
It occurs to me the inclination for many of us to spread gossip is ingrained behavior. Intentions are not necessarily malevolent, but, even so, rumors that may start harmlessly: interpretations of neighborly idiosyncrasies, maybe, have always had the potential to devolve into dangerous fictions that may cause great harm: thousands of ‘witches’ were burned or hung across Europe in the 16th century, rumor and innuendo have led to the demonization of minority communities today and on-line threats of rape and murder directed toward victims of disinformation are commonplace.
Whether those guilty of spreading disinformation are fear driven or just mean-spirited it’s hard to take a liberal stance on speech freedoms while aware of the potential harms rumor, gossip and disinformation can cause.
As I anticipate the oncoming winter, the discomfort of cold winds and ice-covered streets, the extended darkness of shorter days and the ugliness of dirt covered snowdrifts, it’s clear to me a certain amount of suffering is soon to be expected.
To set the tone, I’ve been reading about the medieval practice of mortification of the flesh, a not uncommon behavior of the extremely pious seeking union with God. Such behavior was all about suffering, as it might involve ascetic denial, living in seclusion, vows of silence and might grow to include flagellation and other self-imposed harms to one’s physical body.
It should be noted that those who engaged in such activities needed to maintain purity of motive: to accept physical pain in order to grow closer to and become more deserving of God’s benevolence. Pridefulness or exhibitionism must not be in the equation.
So, as I anticipate the suffering I will have to endure in the coming winter, I must avoid poking fun at the snowbirds who flee to the south, remain committed to my stoic resolve and hope to be rewarded by a celestial embrace in April or May.
The eastern religious principle of Ahimsa proposes that one ‘do no harm’: to achieve enlightened insight one must come to the realization that all things human and animal, animate and inanimate have soul-like presence, deserve respectful consideration.
The Jains are a traditional Indian religious sect that take the principle of Ahimsa very seriously. The deeply spiritual among them practice extreme measures to avoid injuring any living thing, plant or animal, will avoid walking at night so as not to injure unseen insects and mask so as not to inhale any sort of minute flying being. The idea is I guess, that in order to achieve Ahimsa one must get in touch with what one imagines that even the least of life forms has valid meaningful existence.
With this in mind, I found myself recently watching a tiny winged creature walk across my pants leg. I wondered where it might be headed, whether it might be seeking food of some sort. Certainly it must be considered a conscious being aware of the dangers around it and what stone it might find that would willingly harbor it for the night. Would it be able to form a bond with the sheltering rock one might assume has being in itself?
There is something enlightening about acknowledging the validity of our fellow beings.
I’ve been reading about kenosis, the idea that, in order to fully embrace the natural world in all its beauty and complexity it is necessary to suppress the ego. Seems reasonable I guess: if one’s sense of self is excessive the inclination will be to subordinate, view the world as a vast department store where everything is available for the personal satisfaction of the consumer: forests, water, mineral resources, human labor is there to enrich the individual who covets it.
A strong ego may fail to recognize the presence of the Other: the aethereal essence permeating all things responsible for the beauty and complexity of the natural world. As the natural world comes increasingly under threat, in order to temper its decline an effort will be required that may exceed one’s comfortable complacence, demand actions and behaviors of uncommon strength and sacrifice. It’s not like these ideas are new: most all spiritual beliefs have embraced the sacredness of the natural world, honored the food animal sought benevolence from the Other to ensure food production.
Time to disavow our sense of anthropomorphic superiority, work to become one with the natural world.
I spent some time with my siblings recently whom I haven’t seen for more than a year. Our relationships have always been congenial and remain so even though our political views and religious beliefs have diverged, become nearly polar oppositional. We each harbor, I’m sure, the certainty the other of us is mistaken, has somehow acquired beliefs so unacceptable that he/she is beyond redemption.
But sensitive topics didn’t come up this visit unlike earlier times when we were younger and aggressively confrontational. Instead, we consciously avoided political warfare in favor of fond remembrances of family no longer living and shared childhood adventures.
Still, I know we will all be best served, that our bonds will stay intact, by maintaining a healthy distance in time and miles between us.