We have succumbed to the seductive allure of an extrinsic, empirical, visible, “rankable” and ranked ladder that has not, cannot and never will attend to our authentic intrinsic, creative, relational, ideational survival. There are obvious and profound reasons for our misguided and sabotaging, yet foundational, pattern. We are explorers and adventurers in an untamed and untameable universe. We are fascinated by those whose stories of adventure, challenge, discovery, and, yes, achievement and we seek to emulate their “achievements” and their successes. We depict their various narratives of successful travel, trade, invention, social and political organization, and their plethora of percepts and concepts of their relationship with one or many deities and their prophets, priests, shamans and pilgrims. Theirs are the shoulders we attempt to climb onto, and then attempt to walk, or more likely run on.
We read and study their manuscripts, their laboratory experiments, their dwellings, their diets, their designs and their artistic legacies, as well as their rules, and their faith and superstition perceptions, beliefs and practices. We teach their philosophies, their precepts, and their practices, and to a large extent we have “spread” their legacies to people living throughout what we know as the many “round” corners of the planet. And, while we have ‘ingested’ or practiced or imbibed, or swallowed or adopted and even revised many of these foundational precepts and principles, we have never risen above the territorial, the competitive, the jealous, the vindictive, the divisive and the seduction of immediacy.
In the Christian lexicon, Babel exemplifies the many languages, and the concomitant divisions, separations, competitions and exterminations about which we then celebrate and divide into ‘wins’ or ‘defeats’. Our economic narratives, and our political and social narratives have been written and preserved by those who “succeeded” first in survival for themselves, and then for their clans, tribes or families. Periodically, spasmodically and highly intermittently, we know of tribes whose commitment to the ideals of physical and empirical accomplishments were primarily in artistic artifacts and less in tribal warfare. Yet these, by the nature of our “nature” (as we have chosen to perceive and to believe it to be) are far less significant than the narratives of battles won, migrations (especially from slavery and imprisonment), empires built, cathedrals designed and constructed, ships, vehicles, kites and eventually planes designed and built, and trade routes, bank vaults, and their accompanying records, legislative and legal frameworks, and sling-shots, ram-rods, and battlements.
Of course, our narrative celebrates the intermingling of our “work” and our “faith practices. Some faith communities espouse the notion that “God” cannot be circumscribed or contained within concrete walls, or paper scrolls, or altars or even ecclesial trust accounts. And, of course, neither can humanity be adequately or even minimally depicted, or contained in a physical or even a literary encapsulation. Our novels, plays and poetry, along with our symphonies, concertos, operas and ballets dig into and bring forth pictures of the human psyche, its soul in the multiple ways by which we suffer, struggle, attempt to relate, seek to engage, dominate and fail. And, central to the rationale of attempting to deal with insurmountables and inexplicables like failure, death, defeat and despair, and even the tempest of winds, storms, and the inevitable crashes of our “ships” (both literal and metaphoric) into the rocks of coasts, and other boundaries, is our explanation/belief that our nature requires our “going there” because the mountain exists. Further, we “hold” that our failures, if not terminal, are our best teachers. Even our deaths, resulting from one or more of many different kinds of struggles, whether inside the body, the mind, or in conflict with external forces, are conceived as pathways to another realm.
And central to all of western (and perhaps universal) narratives, is the construct that physical, empirical and observable accomplishments sit atop the ladder of our ideal hierarchy of meaningful, purposeful and worthwhile and even sacred and spiritual meaning and legacy for a human life. We do not, even must not, ignore or denigrate the continuing pattern of altruism, kindness, rescues and compassion that attends each and every human catastrophe, and even to celebrate these almost unbelievable and certainly heroic acts, each moment of every day, in all cultures and geographic regions, regardless of the inherited and practiced faith beliefs and rituals. And to consider these acts of support, compassion, empathy, and heroic struggle in the midst of crisis as anything less than our best “angels” and most admired expressions of our highest and clearest imitation of any deity worthy of the name would be a travesty.
And for all of our successes, monuments to our various and highly complex achievements both in physical and emotional and relational measures, we continue to struggle with our relationship to those components of our perceptions that, while we have put numbers and devices on it, we have succumbed to its seductions and its entrapments.
The longer our conceived and perceived dimension of time, in terms of geologic, the more conscious we become of the brevity of our “time” here. And the more ways in which we are able and willing to fixate on time, in increasingly diminishing units as our instruments for measuring become even more sophisticated, the paradox of obsessive attention to its passing (both in speed and duration) and the even greater obsession of achieving in the time available, we are risking those aspects of our existence that cry out for our consideration: our capacity and need for “time out,” not merely as a time for sleep and relaxation, and not only to enter into the forests and the fields, the rivers and the lakes, and not just to escape to the beaches and the "halcyons" of retreats, cottages, tents and canoes…but the kind of way we conceive and perceive of time itself.
Overriding our various epithets undergirding our perceptional foundation, is the relationship with and perception of TIME. We see each situation as if it were a under a microscope, immediate, fixed, frozen and magnetic, given the altar of mathematics and science on which we currently worship. This is especially noticeable in our relationship with others. “The other” is perceived, conceptualized and dealt with as a “thing” given his/her identity, ethnicity, presenting mask, voice tone, hair treatment, wardrobe, jewellery and tattoo accessorizing…and even the most superficial (or not) piece of history we know or have been “told” also plays a key role in the way we treat that person. There was/is a meme that depicts much of religious discourse as a “weaponizing” of various single lines of scripture. Today, we have weaponized each other, with whom we have conflict, as a stuttering reprise of each of the major and minor crises that we have experienced. And our narrow, shrivelled, stunted and paralyzed vision of the length of time in which the situation “must” be resolved provides a sabotaging predicate for the resolution/reconciliation/negotiation/compromise that very often never happens.
Ironically, while we all now have devices with which we can “connect” we others anywhere on the planet, or so it seems, we are also facing what, without exaggeration, can be dubbed a different (from planetary, military, economic or ethnic) existential crisis, in that we have reduced our willingness, and perhaps even our capacity to appreciate, comprehend, get to know and to identify with the many individual and shared contexts of the lives of the others whom we encounter…and ultimately with whom we share a finite pool of resources like air, water, land and tolerance and acceptance. In our determination to “win” (as measured by the extrinsic and empirical) we have rendered others as “means” to our “ends” and we have done it on a personal, community, regional, national and global level.
We speak of “politizing of the issues” in our vernacular that depicts our basal attitudes: every letter of every letter is a signal to our opponents about our vulnerabilities; every sigh, smile, face turned away, body closure or gesture is a political statement, depending on our personal agenda. If we are engaged in an open and public conflict (or even and perhaps more importantly inside our own minds) stemming from our victimhood, (race, gender, age, faith, language), then we magnetize each situation to “fit” the parameters of our victimhood, in the moment. And the moment is the crucial aspect, because we have lost sight of the fact that this moment is neither the only or the last such moment.
The ”single frame” snapshot, taken in a split second, while collaged and montaged with other “frames” has conquered the “flowing now” that merges the moments, fuses the images, blurs the lines and gives rationale to the argument of “war” and the extension that we are all on a battlefield, facing the imminent and threatening firing squad of “the other” (from the start, the enemy). In this war, each word of the enemy is a bullet threatening to bring us down, because the exercise of power, by those charged with its discharge, demands that only zero-sum “wins” generate a sustainable career path.
This isolation of “frames of moments” past, present and future, has the added malignity of generating headlines, wounds, reputations and revisionist “histories” of all the moments of recorded time. We are watching, listening to, reflecting upon and “judging” anyone whose life of public service is now rendered an autopsy, long before the passing of that life. Ironically, paradoxically and tragically, we, as a culture in denial of death (global warming, ageism, youth-restoring cosmetics) are drinking the “death-vile” of post-mortems, demonstrating that our Shadows denied will eventually, surreptitiously and inevitably bite us in the butt. Our obsessive reduction of time to nano-seconds, matter to microbes, and words raped of context is and will continue to render all public discourse, and consequentially each of us participating in the dialogue to the vain project of injecting a far different, and far more complex, and far more interesting and complicated, and even ambiguous and thereby perplexing “truth”…that there are no winners in any war, no matter how obsessive are the combatants.
Symptomolgy, the microscopic analysis of the symptoms, (much of this piece has been focused on this) cannot and must not camouflage the underlining dynamic: we simply detest the challenge of working through the compromises, the negotiations, the ambiguities and the patience that the white water, the hurricanes, the droughts, and the idylls of the flow of the river of each of our personal lives, flowing into the giant flow of the river of human culture and discourse. We have succumbed to the entrapment of playing the personal, organizational, corporate, ecclesial, provincial and national “ratings” game, as if, analogized by the pin-ball machine, the score at the end of the game is our “achievement”. At some level, we all know the bounces of that ball have little causal relationship to our “execution” or our skills.
The self-seduction that we can “manage and control” complex variables, by isolating each variable onto a microscope screen, as it is can be etherized, anatomized and dissected like a cancerous tumor, or an insect in a biology lab, is not only untrue; it is also quite mesmerizingly dangerous. The compilation and collation of the plethora of these isolated “diagnoses” into some objectively verifiable projection of how to move forward, in our private lives, and also in our public policy determinations, and the only or primary resource, leaves the future in the hands of the motherboards and the algorithms that drive them, and the soft-ware programmers who generate the algorithms.
If will be no surprise, dear reader, to be reminded that this scribe holds tight to the belief that the creative imagination, as exemplified by the novelists, the poets, the playwrights, the composers and the geniuses are dedicated to the preservation, the honour, the nobility and even the saving grace of the nuanced contexts of all of reality. There is and will always be a piece of imaginative “terrain” between, before and outside the battlefield where the poets paint their personal pictures, inviting us to share their ambiguities, without having to engage in a zero-sum conflict.
Ideas per se, invite their engagement, their appreciation and their reflection in a spirit of community, sharing, like a meal at the hearth of the touching spirits, without ever requiring the acquisition of arms for their defence. Their existence is its own justification, as is the existence of each human on the planet. And if and when we begin (as we already have) to enter into the equation that “your existence” is a threat to “my existence” we have already lost everything that is worth living for.
Educators, thought leaders, corporate executives, religious leaders, and especially political leaders can help in the process of injecting context, nuance, compromise and engagement of a healthy and life-giving nature, and, like Pete Buttigieg, in Monday’s CNN townhall, refuse to take the bait, when we are challenged by an unworthy, illicit, ignominious, defamatory charge.
And we can all learn much from cultures like the indigenous, the Asian and the tribal peoples who know that time has a very long arc...predictions of the apocalypse have proven hollow for millenia.