Thursday, May 15, 2003

I got a bit of feedback about a post I made the other day. I hadn’t thought much of the thing at the time, but I’ve had more than one person bring it up, so I want to expand on it.

When I wrote the other day about my spiritual development, I was unnecessarily unclear. The word development used in the context I used it, makes perfect sense to me as a conservative, a traditionalist, and a history major. But I don’t think that it probably makes a lot of sense to your average person who isn’t all, or especially any, of the above. When I say “development,” I don’t mean to equate it with say, “improvement.” To develop is to change over time. But development is not the equivalent of improvement. A cancer, for example, develops rapidly. But such rapid development is hardly an improvement for someone with the disease. On the other hand, I don’t want to imply that I’ve regressed either. I wouldn’t say that. But I expressed myself so poorly that I wouldn’t blame anyone for drawing either conclusion.

I think it’s a very difficult matter to get to the essence of anything. I think it would be exceptionally difficult to capture the essence of a hot dog; to capture the essence of a human being would be impossible. So, while I’m fond of telling stories about myself, and while I really do think they reveal something integral about me, I don’t think that they really get at who and what I am. If a scientific study would have been conducted on me throughout the whole of my life for instance, if everything I ever did or thought or felt, was recorded numerically in detailed reports with pie charts and the works, I still don’t think that it would reflect the essence of me. It would be the difference between seeing a scholarly drawing of an elephant, and seeing the thing firsthand with your own eyes. You might have an idea of an elephant if you studied one from a book. You could see the general shape and form, and have an intellectual grasp of the weight and mass of the animal, and you could even make lists of the habits and preferences of the creature. But all of that knowledge is nothing when you compare it with looking smack dab in the face of an elephant. It’s a different thing to be keeled over by the sheer vastness of an elephant standing in front of you than it is to be able to explicate the average or specific height and weight of your average or specific elephant.

Human beings are so strange, and twisted and terribly, terribly odd. I don’t pretend to understand them. But I’m utterly awed by them in every way. Human beings intrigue me in the same silly and childish way that I think most young children are intrigued by their adolescent older siblings. I know most of the facts about human beings, and I’ve lived among them all of the days of my life, and there isn’t a single scientific thing in the world that separates me from humanity in general. And yet, I feel that I’m separated from them in a mysterious and non-tangible sort of way; I’m certain of it, really. But it leads me to be curious about humanity in the same way that I was curious about my brother when I was little. I remember once when I was seven, I stayed home from school. Having watched my thirteen-year old brother board the bus, secure in the knowledge that he was really going to be gone all day, I raided his room. It was full of odd discoveries. Memorably, that day I figured out the difference between boys’ underwear and girls’, what it was like to wear a Cub Scout uniform, and that my brother received notes from girls that contained naughty words, and that he even used them himself. It was an eye opening day. But I didn’t know about my brother then. He was beyond me in ways that I couldn’t contemplate. I’ll never know what it was like to be my brother, even though I snooped in his things. And I’ll never know what it’s like to be a human just by watching humanity move.

Many of the most basic skills I use I can remember learning. Yesterday, while getting a candy bar out of machine, for instance, I had a random mental flashback of visiting my brother Tony in prison when I was quite little. I wanted a Twix, but I’d never seen a machine like that before, and I had no idea how to use it. My brother came over and showed me how to cross reference. “Twix, underneath it says D-12. Go over here and look for a D. Do you see the D? Press it. Okay, now find the 12 in this row. Press it.” The candy fell down, and I more or less forgot about it. But I never had to relearn how to use that sort of machine again. It was natural after that; like riding a bike. And I can remember my mother teaching me how to read a digital clock on our old, and gigantic, kitchen microwave. “If it says fifty, then you tell me ten til the next hour. Like now it’s three fifty, so you say that it’s ten til four. Do you see how the flashing things in the middle separate the three from the fifty?” I can remember my father spending hours teaching me how to tie my shoes. I know that I had to learn so many little things that I can’t possibly remember, or ever fathom. Things like which muscles to move to make my arms move to the left, or how to coordinate my eyes to work together, or which style of crying procured a response most quickly.

When I talk about my spiritual development, I can only talk about the milestones. About, for starters, the Saturday morning when I was ten, when I laid in bed for what seemed like hours, thinking about how miserable the heat was, and when it struck me like lightning from a clear sky that I didn’t believe in God. Scientists didn’t believe in God, I reasoned. And scientists are the smartest people on the Earth. Or, for instance, how when I was eleven and living with my sister and my niece Brianne, with whom I shared a room, had had a nightmare and woke me up. We went downstairs to the kitchen, and we started talking about God. I didn’t know very much about God, except that I didn’t believe in Him. And I knew something about how there was a guy named Adam and a girl named Eve, and they lived in a garden, and they ate an apple, and God got really mad and that’s why we have to have nightmares. Or how I ate up a little book of Greek myths I found around the same time, and how when I’d play soccer I’d pray silently for the “fierceness of Zeus, and strength of Athena!” Or how, in a moment of utter despair when I was fourteen, I finally gave reading the Bible a try and found it to be stupid and ridiculous and my desperation increased exponentially. How, when I was sixteen, I had a fight with a boy that I loved, about God and conscience and the terrible burden of humanity, and how angry I was when I thought to myself that this damn world didn’t have to be.

But those are only the moments that I noticed the changes in myself. The changes were always present, whether I was aware of them or not. There are two famous stories in my family about my religious history that my mother and father love to pick on me over. The first is the fact that I was only baptized because my grandmother gave all of the grandchildren who were christened a $50 Savings Bond, and my mother didn’t want me to miss out. The second was from when I was only three, and my mother told me that I’d done something bad. I told her, and my grandmother that “I didn’t do anything bad. God did. God made everything, and controls everything, and I’m part of everything, so God did something bad.” My mom was embarrassed at the time, and pinched me a little and said: “You’re supposed to say the ‘devil made me do it.’” I replied, deadly seriously, “the devil can’t make you do things. Only God can. God controls the devil too. God does the bad things.” Considering my nonexistent theological training at that point in my life, it was an amazing thing for me to say. And my mom always swore up and down that I was like Rosemary’s baby because of it. From a christening for money, to an extreme Calvinism, to my first real spiritual crisis when I was six, when I had what I can only describe now as a panic attack because I couldn’t figure out where God came from, there were changes that I couldn’t control or understand or even contemplate.

And that’s how I look myself then and now. I’m changing all of the time. I’ve developed all right, but no one can say how. I’m not content with the fact. I don’t want to be an enigma even to myself. But it does seem to be the position that I find myself in. I wrote earlier about how no one could read this journal and suddenly have their eyes opened to everything there is to know about me. I have a separation from other people that will keep that from happening. And, I do believe in “I.” Though I’m part of the universe, and part of other people, and even part of God, and though I think that everything is incessantly flowing into everything else, I do believe in the distinctive entity that writes this blog. I think there’s a reality behind the solid surfaces and straight lines; but I also think that there’s something to be said for having “me,” and “the door,” and “the dog.” I believe in solids, and straight lines, even if I recognize them as deceptive incarnations. They’re still quite right, even if they’re misunderstandings. But what I’m really driving at here is that I do believe in otherness and alienation. And just as I am alienated from God, and from humanity, I am also alienated from myself. I have found over time that I observe myself just as I observe other people. Sometimes I accidentally catch myself studying myself; making notes on what I’ll do next.

I find myself in a strange position, writing this today, and in my life in general. I have discounted all of the solids and straight lines, and thrown out Euclid, and the meaning of life. And though I often say quite seriously that if there were no meaning I would simply kill myself, the truth is that I didn’t when I had the chance. I am capable of doubting even my own existence, and still I rise and continue to live. I have thrown out all reason and cast my bread on the water, and I’ve believed, and yet I’ve continued to doubt.

Do I believe in God? Yes. And no. Passionately, in both directions. I believe in love, and eternal life, and justice and mercy. And I believe that without God, those things cannot exist. And yet, also, I believe that if there were no God and I could be certain of it, I would be very disturbed at first, and then gradually numb myself to the fact, and then would be able to move on and live a long and unsatisfying, yet not really so terrible, existence.

The only thing that I’m really certain of, completely certain of, is that I am autonomously who I am. That I am not the sum total of my parts. That number specific number combination multiplied by specific number combination does not equate to Sarah. That I am more than my emotions, or my body’s chemicals, or the experiences which have happened to me. I believe that I was someone in the womb, and that I’ll be someone still, when the worms feast upon my inglorious corpse. I believe in free will, and in the right and duty and pleasure and passion, of all human beings to puzzle out the questions I’m puzzling over now. I believe in putting God on trial; and I believe in humbling myself before The Good anyway. I believe in transience and intransience. I believe that the infinite can manifest itself finitely. And I believe in all the paradoxes, and all of the relativistic number systems even as I stamp my foot and demand absolutism.

I don’t know what it means to be a human being in God’s universe. I don’t know what it’s like to be of the species Homo Sapien Sapien, trudging around on planet Earth. I don’t know what the people feel, or how it is to be one of God’s creatures. But I can feel what it is to be me. And I know that I’m part of this world. And I know that I’m part of the fraternity of man. And I know that God lives in me just as I live in Him. And I know that I’ll never understand it all; and I know that there isn’t really so much to understand. But I know that I’ve fallen in love with the contradictions and frustrations of it all. And I feel comfortable in my burdensome, autonomous frame. To be; to not be; to be not; all of the above and none of the above. And for once, I find myself rested and refreshed in the knowledge and non-knowledge of it all.