I’ve been reading about some of the deep thinkers of the early 20th century, how they struggled to come to grips with the tumultuous uncertainty of the time. Clearly, the 1920’s must have been difficult: the western world had just endured a devastating world war that put question to the very value of human life. The dissolution of long held beliefs brought about by Darwin’s theories of evolution 20 years earlier had serious religious implications for many and Einstein’s relativity theory upset the belief that time and space were fixed entities.
So, the philosophical search was on to find a grounded reality. Questions abounded: What lies within the bounds of knowable truth? How does language determine what can be thought? How do social norms repress spirit? In various ways a common thought occurred to these brilliant thinkers: In order for man to rise above the moral and spiritual ennui of the times he must muster the courage to intellectually move beyond, to take the leap into the freedom of personal choice without any assumption of reward, earthly or heavenly, expecting nothing and assuming total responsibility for one’s existence. Setting aside the false assumptions brought about by the mythical thinking embedded in language will lead one to realize a truly authentic life: to being one’s true self.
How exciting it must have been for those who dared take the leap beyond conventional foundations, accepting one’s existence fully in place and time, realizing the freedom of personal responsibility. The headiness of absolute personal freedom, I suspect, was eventually tempered by the need for close relationships and the giving they require.
I’m finding the transformation of nature this time of year breathtaking. The vibrancy and variety of colors transforms the environment so dramatically my visual surroundings become something totally other, so changed, that, on a walk in the woods, I find myself someplace unrecognizable as if it were another world.
Nature though is dying, she is in the throes of death, breathing a last gasp as she fades into dormancy. In another month these woods will appear dead, reduced to subdued browns and grays. They will have been abandoned by songbirds and hibernating animals. There will be little to suggest there is any life existing here at all. The death of nature will, of course, eventually transition into a sort of rebirth or at least a regeneration of life as the seasons advance.
What makes nature’s metaphorical death so unique is the flair, the exuberant celebration of finality she displays. Such an enthusiastic embrace of physical demise doesn’t seem to follow for the animal world except, perhaps, for certain humans convinced they too will be reborn in the spring.
In his masterpiece Either/Or Soren Kierkegaard contrasts the moral relativity of the aesthete ‘A’ with the clearly defined moral values of the ethicist Judge Wilhelm. ‘A’ revels in seduction, he pursues women, is attracted to the young, innocent and beautiful girl, whose total commitment he gains through devious manipulation. Then, though, once the quarry is won, interest is lost. The ethicist judge castigates ‘A’ for so shallow a behavior informing him he doesn’t understand the significance of a deep personal relationship, that love and duty to a first love produces a deep bond and a constantly renewing true aesthetic relationship.
It seems pretty clear that K. sees himself in both characters: the break-up with his once betrothed Regine on the one hand and his obsession with the moral rigidity of the pietist religion he was brought up to revere. There’s little doubt he experienced serious psychological conflict that eventually resulted in a ‘leap into the absurd’, a total embrace of Christianity.
I must admit I can’t relate to K’s situation but he does do a really good job of getting me to focus attention on my own personal existential self.
In the summer of his 12th year this boy and his friends were introduced to musical instruments. They were being groomed for eventual inclusion into the high school band. In his small-town competition wasn’t an issue. Bodies were needed, so by the time these kids reached 7th grade or so it was assumed most of them, if they stayed with it, would take their places beside the high schoolers in the concert band.
That same summer this boy’s best friend’s brother, on the very day he got his driver’s license was given the keys to the family ’52 Chevrolet and he (the boy) and his friend were invited to ride along, to share in the experience of new found freedom. The country roads near their hometown were wash board, loose gravel and narrow, under constant grading that pushed up gravel ridges that made the roads even narrower. Five miles or so into their ride the car began to swerve having edged into the gravel windrow on the side of the road, overcorrected, swerved again, jumped the gravel ridge, down into the ditch and struck a driveway abutment. For some reason beyond memory the boy was given the honor of riding ‘shotgun’ next to the driver while his friend sat in the back seat. The immediate interruption of forward momentum was unfortunately restricted only to the car. The boy, having struck the dashboard with his face was suddenly aware of no longer having any front teeth.
Anyway, the big deal that summer for the boy and his friends was getting a band instrument. Everyone wanted trumpets. The consensus was this was clearly a masculine choice, the girls opting for clarinets or flutes for reasons similarly relating to gender orientation. It soon became obvious that the lip strength it took to produce sound through a brass mouthpiece without supporting front teeth was a non-starter, as far as becoming a member of the brass section was concerned. After the months of anticipation, the letdown was significant. The boy envied his friends for awhile until he was introduced to an Instrument that didn’t require a strong embouchure. He became the proud possessor of an alto saxophone that he soon came to realize was, strictly from a physical standpoint an instrument quite superior, aesthetically speaking, to the trumpet.
The unsettling events of recent months that have brought us to what we are led to believe is a ‘new normal’ have provided me glimpses into unfamiliar territory. It’s not, of course, that the basic lay of the land or its population of warm-blooded inhabitants are any different than they were last year, but I find myself drifting into uncharted psychological waters.
The restrictions that we have necessarily imposed upon ourselves, cautions about travel and social gatherings, seem to have spawned new realizations, subtle perspectives: not exactly epiphanies, I suppose, but unfamiliar mental states I find to be quite interesting and pleasant. These brief insights have led me to the thought that I have lived most of my life in a limited world, a fairly tightly bounded universe.
Well, while I find it unlikely I will have any great experiential happenings in my foreseeable future I do find these occasional brief glimpses into the unknown refreshing.
So, here I am, driving down the road, seeking respite from oppressive reality. I headed off because I find I’m losing focus. The demons are arising, assuming identities of normally empathetic or at least innocuous friends and acquaintances. I’m traveling to a remote location without phone towers let alone wifi; no news for a few days can only be a good thing in my state of mind.
As I pass through unknown small towns and pastoral farmlands, I fantasize carefree and peaceful existences. Such distraction, I know, will only be momentary. What I need to do is reestablish my center of being, the stable base I know is there somewhere. I must find focus to embrace the eternal ‘Now’.
And now, here I sit before gently lapping waters. My surroundings are incredibly peaceful. The quiet is exhilarating. I find it amazing how a simple short getaway can be so immediately rejuvenating. I will try, in the future, to remember to seek out the healing powers of nature.
Heading to Arizona as I am, masked, buying gas at the pump, maintaining a safe distance from others, in constant use of antibacterial wipes, eating in my car I feel pretty safe although people in the streets stare, seem suspicious and I speed by them. The recent health scare, the pandemic, has me thinking of ‘The Walking Dead’, you know, the TV series in which a few stalwart survivors find themselves in constant danger, being pursued by the ravenous infected hoards. Civilization has collapsed and our heroes are on constant lookout for temporary safe havens and stores of canned goods on which to survive.
I really don’t think civilization is in danger of imminent collapse, but my journey has taken on an air of excitement (trepidation?) and as someone of advanced age I’m led to believe my very mortality may be at risk. If you don’t hear from me next week you might possibly suspect the worst: I may be quarantined in a senior retirement community.
I’ve been reading about the Roman Church’s extreme influence over the population of medieval Europe. Papal authorities demanded monetary compensations for all sorts of things. The sales of indulgences was particularly lucrative. Parishioners were assured such investment would reduce the purgatorial sentences of one’s departed loved ones.
By the early 16th century people began to realize the scam: that their hard earned money was funding a papal court engaged in extravagant living rather than winning early release from purgatorial Hell, which resulted in a serious collapse of papal influence not to mention the drain on monetary resources. The people though, still as religious as ever and now without an absolute overseer to guide them to the after-life (which had they thought about it wasn’t all that wonderful to look forward to anyway) found that they really didn’t need to be led at all, could interpret scripture for themselves and make their own way into God’s good graces.
The problem was that if anyone and everyone could make up his (or her) own mind about ‘True Faith’ then there would probably end up being a lot of differing opinions about what exactly the ‘True Faith’ was and whose side God was on, which is indeed what happened. As it turned out people discovering their own personal ‘True Faith’ weren’t particularly amenable to being contradicted by someone else’s idea of ‘True Faith’ which led to some pretty nasty and bloody conflicts, wars, beheadings and burnings that continued for over 100 years.
I guess, in the end, the tumult did bring about needed social reform and, you know, re-establish a semblance of authority. The means to achieve it, though was certainly a far cry from the message of the gospels.
I’ve been reading about the difficulties that the Early Christians faced translating the Bible into Latin. There were, apparently, a number of translations from the original Hebrew and Greek in early Christian times that were treated as ‘living text’, altered to suit the inclinations and personal biases of the interpreter. Serious scholars like Jerome (whom the church eventually thought well enough of to grant sainthood) struggled, in the 4th century CE, to gain a sufficient knowledge of Greek to produce an accurate (or fairly accurate anyway) translation of what was originally written. Even so our intrepid scholar, given the enormity of the task, made plenty of mistakes. And on top of it all, the time being pre-printing press, copies had to be made by hand by ill-fed, poorly housed monks who it is certainly reasonable to understand, made plenty of errors of their own.
Later, in the 16th century, Erasmus of Rotterdam, a respected Biblical scholar, unhappy with the grammatical errors and discrepancies of meaning in the New Testament returned to the original Greek in order to produce a translation more in keeping with the intentions of the authors of the gospels and epistles. Erasmus (whom the church apparently didn’t deem sufficiently saintly) spent years working on his Biblical update. He, too, was prone to translating mistakes.
Assuming the multiple translations into modern languages has inevitably built mistakes upon mistakes I have to wonder how today’s Christian Fundamentalists can maintain a belief in Biblical inerrancy.
I happened upon a commentary the other day about perspectives: how we as individuals see our world(s) as inherently good places or as bad and getting worse. The suggestion the psychologist author offers, in the end, is that our world view(s) are less about the world than about certain primal beliefs we harbor. To emphasize her thesis the author provides access to an on-line questionnaire whereby the reader might find out why, exactly, he or she wakes up in the morning enthusiastic and ready to face the new day or in a funk.
I couldn’t resist. I answered the 20 or so questions designed to determine to what degree I saw the world as safe, enticing and alive fairly quickly and was then presented with bar graphs ranking my responses with those of other survey takers. According to the results I found that my world view is pretty positive; a safe and enticing place (for the most part) inviting enthusiastic exploration, rife with opportunities to earn and grow and populated with mostly warm and supportive people.
When it came to the ‘alive ‘ part I didn’t fair so well, ranking down in the 20-30 percentile, which meant, I guess, that I couldn’t come to grips with the idea worldly events happen for a purpose which was how the questions were posed. But then I got to thinking about the idea of synchronicity, the idea that coincidences of time and place occur too frequently to be, well, coincidences: like thinking of an old friend one day and then hearing from him the next. And then there’s chaos theory, you know, like the butterfly effect where a small inconsequential occurrence begins a chain of events that snowball into a happening of enormous consequence, like the meteor sited by the Emperor Constantine providing the impetus for the rise of Christianity.
So, it has become clear to me that the world is a living, dynamic albeit chaotic place. I retook the test and did much better on the ‘alive’ part. So, I guess I see the world as a pretty good place. Well, mostly anyway.
(If you’re curious about your own perspectives take the survey at myprimals.com)