Sunday, July 26, 2015

To See And Yet To Disbelieve: A Sunday Rumination

     Gather round, Gentle Readers, for I have a story to tell. It’s about youth, and age, and an unusual collision between them. It’s about rebellion of the most pitiable sort: rebellion against one’s own potentialities and virtues. And it’s about things that were, and are, not of this world, yet were clearly seen...and were rejected by him who saw them.

     It’s about a man, but ultimately, it’s about fallen Man.

     He was young, and old. He had known both hardship and comfort, in approximately equal amounts. He knew a great many things, but practically nothing about himself. If he had a mission, it wasn’t the one he imagined.

     He was noted by one and all for his seriousness, his intensity, and his concentration on faith and the things of the spirit. Such matters were never far from his thoughts. He kept them close even as he studied the most mundane of subjects. Throughout his youth they undergirded his world and lit it from within. He was often derided as a “junior mystic.” He took no notice of it.

     It was his habit to speak seriously. Though he had not yet passed his twenty-first summer, he conversed with peasants and philosophers, commoners and kings, with equal ease. Despite his seeming youth, his elders never dismissed him or took him for granted.

     He trusted his reason and the evidence of his senses. Let’s give him that much, though his trust in those things lapsed when it ought to have been at its peak.

     The first cusp of his life came at a party. He was deep in conversation with a somewhat older woman. The talk had covered several subjects, and he spoke seriously about them all. As the hours passed, others gathered around them, though none of them spoke. Evening had given way to night, and a brief lapse in their exchange had come, when the conversation took an unexpected turn. “I’ve been studying palmistry,” she said, though their chat had not come near to any such topic. “May I take a palm print from you to study later?”

     He thought about it for a moment, could find no harm in it, and assented. As one of their hosts went to fetch an ink cartridge, she reached for his right hand. He turned it palm upward to her, and she gasped.

     She stared wide-eyed at his palm for several seconds, in complete silence. “You must be about two thousand years old,” she said at last. “I can see that you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.” She released his hand and silently retracted her request for a palm print. The party broke up shortly thereafter.

     The incident shook him to the core. Somehow she had seen deeply into him – far more deeply than he had ever permitted anyone, even his parents, to look. Others had twitted him about his perpetual seriousness, how he treated his life as if it were a problem to be solved when his coevals treated theirs as a frolic in the sun. The advice he’d heard most frequently, from persons young and old, was to “loosen up.” He had always dismissed such prescriptions, but he hadn’t forgotten them.

     Only one person, his parish pastor, had spoken to any other effect. But he’d allowed a distance to form between them that dimmed the luminance of his pastor’s counsel, all the way to invisibility.

     In the firestorm her remark had ignited within his skull, he drew the wrong lesson.

     It was only much later, after two decades of heedless self-indulgence and reckless adventurism that had nearly cost him his life twice before, that he recalled that evening and her words. It may have helped that he was far from home, and that recent developments and encounters had shaken him as deeply as that earlier conversation had done.

     She was right. I knew it at the time. I turned away from it even so.

     He strained to find the reason for it.

     Was it a form of delayed-action peer pressure? Or sudden revulsion at the idea of a life focused on studying, learning, and pondering? Or was it just a suppressed adolescent rebellion that had finally built up enough steam to force itself forward at last?

     He could not know. The young/old man he’d been was as alien to him as he’d been to himself at that time. Perhaps too much time had passed. Perhaps he’d seen too much, had been wounded too many times. It didn’t matter. A second cusp, more pronounced than the first, was upon him.

     I knew better even then. I knew better, but I did worse. The very epitome of folly. But what now?

     The years he’d squandered could not be regained. All he could do was mourn them. Yet he knew he’d had an epiphany. Though the habits of the twenty years behind him inclined him to dismiss it, his reason remained intact. He resolved that this time, he would believe what he saw all too plainly.

     He embarked upon a project few men ever dare to undertake: the complete reconstruction of his life. He knew how it must begin: the component he’d first sloughed must be the one first restored.

     He returned to faith in God.

     We are frequently told to maintain a healthful skepticism, even about what we see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, and reason out with our own minds. It occurs to few persons that the popularity of such primary-color cynicism isn’t a perfect justification for it. Why not trust the evidence of our senses? Why not believe that the world is as it appears? Why not entertain, if only for a moment, the possibility that he who tells you not to trust your own eyes, ears, and reason might not be your friend – that he might have motives of which he dares not speak?

     Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was quite explicit about it:

     Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it – no matter if I have said it! – except it agree with your own reason and your own common sense.

     That applies just as strongly to epiphanies – private, internal experiences – as to external ones that others could share. For we have senses that go beyond the conventionally enumerated five: the kinesthetic senses of our bodies, the probabilistic, inferential, and inductive senses of our minds, and the moral sense that emanates from our souls. These are no more to be disregarded than the reports of our eyes and ears.

     I’m inclined to think that epiphany is more common than most of us imagine, which might be a part of the reason many persons dismiss theirs. Internal experiences are difficult to discuss with others. Many persons are embarrassed to mention them. The secularity and overall cynicism of our era makes it harder still. An industry has emerged that’s powerfully biased against accepting them; its practitioners charge hundreds of dollars per fifty-minute “hour,” which inclines their clients to privilege their opinions above others.

     A few persons who’ve had epiphanies have told me about them. Most of them pledged to accept their internal revelations and to act accordingly. They’ve all benefited thereby. Most of those who’ve dismissed them are still on the sunny side of the sod, so who can say what might arise to change their minds?

     Sometimes what changes a mind is the sudden, event-triggered perception of wasted years, as was the case for the subject of the brief tale above. I almost succumbed to the impulse to call such an interval “years spent wandering in the wilderness,” but realized that that kind of wandering almost always has a cleansing, healing effect. Provided you don’t starve or get mauled by a grizzly bear, of course.

     To sum up:
     Trust your internal senses.
     Trust your facility of reason and what it tells you.
     Be prudent, but don’t be paralyzed; you are more than even you can know.
     Remember how much of your “knowledge” is really confidence derived from past experiences: in other words, faith.

     May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

Dystopic said...

Something similar happened to me, although no palm readers were involved. Instead, the barely-functional disaster we know as the Public school system was the palm reader, and their reading was terribly in error. I attended religious school for a few years, before nearly getting kicked out enough times for troublesome behavior that my father gave up and sent me to public school.

The teachers there praised me consistently as smarter, wiser, and older in some sense than other students. Some even thought me "sweet" and "kind." And, in truth, the test scores and grades I garnered seemed to support this. They were convinced (or so I thought), that I would be wildly successful. As a result, I thought the jocks, the normal kids, and many others inferior to myself. This didn't win me a lot of friends. An false arrogance was instilled in me that I was intellectually superior to most anyone. It didn't help that, in the case of the school teachers, many *were* intellectual inferiors (the public school system is not in good shape, my friends).

Furthermore, I thought that so long as I continued being smart, success, wealth and beautiful women must naturally follow. For wasn't I also sweet and kind?

If God has a sense of humor (and some his creations lead me to suspect that he does), I am sure he found this folly amusing in some sense. I neglected my body, thought I knew everything, and figured that I had to be successful at anything simply because of this. Where, then, were my Ferraris and beautiful women? Naturally I began to hate the physically strong, the beautiful, the hard-working, etc... for taking what seemed to be my due.

Regardless of intelligence, I was also lazy, arrogant, narcissistic, physically weak and, most importantly, very far from God's grace. I had listened to a stream of compliments and praise from idiots, and thought myself intelligent as a result of this.

The epiphany did not come to me all at once. Indeed, it's something I struggle with today, but a moment does stand out. There was a squirrely Asian I worked with at job something like 12 years ago. He asked me repeatedly why a woman would want a weak man, why success would come for a man who did nothing. Was it possible, he mused, that the world lied to you about what you were supposed to do, and how you were supposed to achieve success and personal satisfaction? It wasn't even directed at me. For him, these were theoretical questions he was pondering in his own life.

But it resonated with me.

Still, the seed took a long time to grow. It was an arduously slow process. In the process, I came to understand the lesson of Socrates. I was not wise, nor special. God did not owe me all these things just because he had gifted me with a little more intelligence than the average public school cretin. And, furthermore, taking compliments seriously can be as destructive as taking insults seriously, especially when both do not jive with reality or as you put it, with your internal senses. If, for instance, I wanted the attentions of beautiful women, should I not work on my own physique (especially if I expected them to work on theirs)? If I wanted to be successful in business, should I not do more than think? Should I not do? These seem boneheadedly obvious, of course, but as Francis has said before, obvious often means overlooked.

In the years since, I have done much better for myself. Not as well as I'd like, nor as well as I am capable. Laziness and arrogance will be a battle for the rest of my life. We all have our personal enemies, but I found mine at last.

And for that, I thank God, and a squirrely little Asian fellow who I haven't seen in 10 years. I wish I had learned the lesson earlier, but better late than never.