August 21, 2003

Once more, in dubious battle

So here we are, once more locked in dubious battle, and I suddenly discover that Steinbeck had pulled it all together in a sensible fashion more than half a century ago – 1936 to be exact.

I’m talking about man as a part of nature – man the collective and man the individual - and war and insanity and loving violence and Iraq and Bush and how they manipulate the media which manipulates us and all that stuff – including blogging and why the hell I do it.

You see, this is the Summer of Steinbeck here at 1346 Drift Road. Not for me, but for Bren, and enough of her enthusiasm rubbed off on me so that I picked up “In Dubious Battle” and started reading it. But I became bored, so I put it down half-way through. Then today I was even more bored, so I picked it up again and stumbled right across these wonderfully insightful observations from the enigmatic Dr. Burton who is helping the communists organize the apple pickers. He does this even though, as Mac, the chief communist, points out, he isn’t a “believer.”

Doc replies:

“ Well, you say I don’t believe in the cause. That’s like not believing in the moon. There’ve been communes before, and there will be again. But you people have an idea that if you can establish the thing, the job’ll be done. Nothing stops, Mac. If you were able to put an idea into effect tomorrow, it would start changing right away. Establish a commune and the same gradual flux will continue.”

[Ah – and I am the Lord of the Dance cried he!]

“Then you don’t think the cause is good?”

Burton sighed. “You see? We’re going to pile up on that old rock again. That’s why I don’t like to talk very often. Listen to me, Mac. My senses aren’t above reproach, but they’re all I have. I want to see the whole picture – as nearly as I can. I don’t want to put on the blinders of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and limit my vision. If I used the term ‘good’ on a thing I’d lose my license to inspect it, because there might be bad in it. Don’t you see? I want to be able to look at the whole thing.”

[Now there’s a positive definition for a skeptic! Not to mention what happens once we label someone or some thing "evil."]

Mac talks about social injustice. Doc talks about the injustice of tetanus, syphilis and “the gangster methods of amoebic dysentery – that’s my field.”

Mac argues:

“It’s different, though, men are doing one, and germs are doing the other.”

“I can’t see much difference, Mac.”
[Nor can I. All is natural. All is nature. We like to think we stand outside looking in. Doc is trying to do just that. But in the end, we are part of the problem, which makes it very difficult to be part of the solution.]

“Well damn it, Doc, there’s lockjaw every place. You can find syphilis in Park Avenue. Why do you hang around with us if you aren’t for us?”

“I want to see,” Burton said. “When you cut your finger, and streptococci get in the wound, there’s a swelling and soreness. That swelling is the fight your body puts up, The pain is the battle. You can’t tell which one is going to win, but the wound is the first battleground. If the cells lose the first fight the streptococci invade, and the fight goes on up the arm. Mac, these little strikes are like the infection. Something has got into the men, a little fever had started and the lymphatic glands are shooting in reinforcements. I want to see, so I go to the seat of the wound.”

“You figure the strike is a wound?”

“Yes. Group-men are always getting some kind of infection. [Think of the wound of September 11, 2001, and the infection that has followed.] This seems to be a bad one. I want to see, Mac. I want to watch these group-men, for they seem to me to be a new individual, not at all like the single men. A man in a group isn’t himself at all, he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t like him any more than the cells in your body are like you. I want to watch the group and, and see what it’s like. People have said, ‘Mobs are crazy, you can’t tell what they’ll do.’ Why don’t people look at mobs not as men, but as mobs. A mob nearly always seems to act reasonably, for a mob.”

“Well what’s this got to do with the cause?”

“It might be like this, Mac. When group-man wants to move, he makes a standard. “God-wills that we re-capture the Holy-Land,’ or he says. ‘We fight to make the world safe for democracy;’ [Or he says both and throws in an “Axis of Evil” for good measure.] or he says, ‘We will wipe out social injustice with communism.’ [Or like bin Laden, he wants to wipe it out with his own brand of religious evil.] But the group doesn’t care about the Holy Land, or democracy, or Communism. Maybe the group simply wants to move, to fight, and uses these words simply to reassure the brains of individual men. I say it might be like that, Mac.” [Enter the “war lover” - or "An Irish Airman forsees His Death."]

Mac’s not happy with what this implies about “the cause,” of course – he’s itching for a fight to weld the men together - and continues to argue. Doc eventually notes:

“ . . . it might be worth while to know more about group-man; to know his nature, his needs, his desires. They’re not the same as ours. The pleasure we get by scratching an itch causes death to a great number of cells. Maybe group-man gets pleasure when individual men are wiped out in a war. I simply want to see as much as I can, Mac, with the means I have.”

And later he concludes [are you listening Geroge W.? Of course not.] “You practical men always lead practical men with stomachs. And something always gets out of hand. Your men get out of hand, they don’t follow the rules of common sense, and you practical men either deny that it is so, or refuse to think about it.” And when someone wonders what it is that makes a man with a stomach something more than your rule allows, why you howl, ‘Dreamer, mystic, metaphysician.’ I don’t know why I talk about it to a practical man. In all history there are no men who have come to such wild-eyed confusion and bewilderment as practical men leading men with stomachs.”

Oh – and what does he have to say about blogging? Just this;

“I shouldn’t have talked so much. But it does clarify a thought to get it spoken, even if no one listens.”

And a bit later he seals it when Mac turns to his companion, Jim.

“Listen, Jim, you didn’t get bothered by what Doc said, did you?”

“No, I didn’t listen.”

If you happen to be listening to Doc, or Steinbeck, or even me, remember comments are always welcome.

Posted by Greg Stone at 03:35 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 19, 2003

'marriage' is the problem

The following was published on the editorial page of The New bedford Standard-Times August 17,2003. It's one more attempt to try to bring some reason to the gay "marriage" battle which is overheated and, too me, surprisingly so.

Ok, I admit it. I’m having trouble with this whole gay marriage thing.

I understand it’s an emotional issue with deep religious overtones, and it raises some fundamental questions about the separation of church and state. But it seems to me the solution is simple: Stop using the word “marriage.”

If I’m hearing the arguments correctly, gays are concerned that their unions do not enjoy the legal protections of marriage and they feel they should. I agree. But we don’t have to do this by having them “marry.” What they need is the same protection under the law for their contract as is afforded by a traditional marriage contract. I can’t think of any reason they should not have this protection.

But don’t call it “marriage.” Call it a “domestic union contract,” or whatever. Some, if not all, gays seem to be saying this. But somehow the word “marriage” keeps grabbing the headlines. Maybe it’s the opposition. Maybe it’s the media. But either way, I think it’s the word “marriage” that has all the emotional baggage,

Everyone is entitled to a contract, gay or heterosexual – and I’m for the churches staying out of the business of marriage entirely. Please note, I say out of the “business” of marriage. I have no objection – in fact, I encourage – a religious group deciding to bless a particular union. Blessing is a proper role for religion. Creating, enforcing, and adjudicating legal contracts is the business of the state. Church officials are acting in a secular, civil capacity when they legally marry people.

Long before the subject of gay marriage was prominent, my father, an Episcopal minister, used to complain about having to marry people. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate why this bothered him. He was referring to the legal part of the ceremony – the secular part – the creating of a contract under the eyes of the state. As a minister he didn’t think that was any of his business. He was interested in love, and you can’t command love with laws.

I now see the wisdom of what he was saying. I hasten to add that in my personal faith I am all for blessing the vows of two people to love one another and I don’t care if they are a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and a man. Love is the proper business of faith, and blessing that love and helping people maintain it is the proper business of a faith community.

But that has nothing to do with law. Laws are the proper business of the state. Contracts are the proper business of the state.

George Bush doesn’t agree with me. That’s fine. I don’t accept his brand of Christianity because for me it denies the foundation of that faith, which is love.

Ditto for the Vatican.

But the Vatican and George Bush can believe anything they like. And it is certainly appropriate for either to argue that within their faiths there will be no blessing of gay unions because – as a matter of faith – they find such unions improper. But the state isn’t in the business of blessing anything and it should not be. The state is in the business of making and enforcing laws and those laws, should provide equal protection for all people in the state regardless of sexual orientation.

Bottom line. I think in the legal battle we should all drop the use of the word “marriage.” It is just an emotional flame-thrower. Instead we should be talking about domestic contracts that give equal protection under the law regardless of sexual orientation. Various faith communities can make whatever judgments they want when it comes to blessing such a union and/or calling it a “marriage” – but they have no business stepping into the legal fray and trying to enforce their spiritual beliefs by creating laws that take away basic legal rights from others.

Posted by Greg Stone at 01:22 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 11, 2003

Let us commence!

Please don't dismiss what follows because it is a commencement speech - we all need to commence this way from time to time. What wonderful thoughts - what beautiful ways of expressing them? This is about joy and brains and an attitude that makes us all winners!

Thanks for forwarding this Pina! With speakers like this even I would be tempted to graduate ;-)


I gave the undergraduate and interdisciplinary studies commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley in May. A number of people asked for a copy of the speech, and I told them I'd post it on Salon. So here it is, shorter and slightly fiddled with.

I am honored and surprised that you asked me to speak today.

This must be a magical day for you. I wouldn't know. I accidentally forgot to graduate from college. I meant to, 30 years ago, but things got away from me. I did graduate from high school, though -- do I get a partial credit for that? Although, unfortunately, my father had forgotten to pay the book bill, so at the graduation ceremony, when I opened the case to see my diploma, it was empty. Except for a ransom note that said, see Mrs. Foley, the bookkeeper, if you ever want to see your diploma alive again.

I went to Goucher College in Maryland for the best possible reasons -- to learn -- but then I dropped out at 19 for the best possible reasons -- to become a writer. Those of you who have read my work know that instead, I accidentally became a Kelly girl for a while. Then, In a dazzling career move, I got hired as a clerk typist in the Nuclear Quality Assurance Department at Bechtel, where I worked typing and sorting triplicate forms. I hate to complain, but it was not very stimulating work. But it paid the bills, so I could write my stories every night when I got home. I worked at Bechtel for six months -- but I had nothing to do with the current Administration's shameless war profiteering. I just sorted triplicate forms. You've got to believe me.

It was a terrible job, at which I did a terrible job, but it paid $600 a month, which was enough to pay my rent and bills. This is the real fly in the ointment if you are crazy enough to want to be an artist -- you have to give up your dreams of swimming pools and fish forks, and take any old job. At 20, I got hired at a magazine as an assistant editor, and I think that was the last real job I've ever had.

I bet I'm beginning to make your parents really nervous -- here I am sort of bragging about being a dropout, and unemployable, and secretly making a pitch for you to follow your creative dreams, when what they want is for you to do well in your field, make them look good, and maybe also make a tiny fortune.

But that is not your problem. Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.

At some point I finally started getting published, and experiencing a meager knock-kneed standing in the literary world, and I started to get almost everything that many of you graduates are hoping for -- except for the money.

I got a lot of things that society had promised would make me whole and fulfilled -- all the things that the culture tells you from preschool on will quiet the throbbing anxiety inside you -- stature, the respect of colleagues, maybe even a kind of low-grade fame. The culture says these things will save you, as long as you also manage to keep your weight down. But the culture lies.

Slowly, after dozens of rejection slips and failures and false starts and postponed dreams -- what Langston Hughes called dreams deferred -- I stepped onto the hallowed ground of being a published novelist, and then 15 years later, I even started to make real money.

I'd been wanting to be a successful author my whole life. But when I finally did it, I was like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit she'd been chasing all her life -- metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn't alive; it had no spirit. It was fake. Fake doesn't feed anything. Only spirit feeds spirit, in the same way only your own blood type can sustain you. It had nothing that could slake the lifelong thirst I had for a little immediacy, and connection.

So from the wise old pinnacle of my 49 years, I want to tell you that what you're looking for is already inside you. You've heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it. You can't buy it, lease it, rent it, date it or apply for it. The best job in the world can't give it to you. Neither can success, or fame, or financial security -- besides which, there ain't no such thing. J.D. Rockefeller was asked, "How much money is enough?" and he said, "Just a little bit more."

So it can be confusing -- most of your parents want you to do well, to be successful. They want you to be happy -- or at least happy-ish. And they want you to be nicer to them; just a little nicer -- is that so much to ask?

They want you to love, and be loved, and to find peace, and to laugh and find meaningful work. But they also -- some of them -- a few of them -- not yours -- yours are fine -- they also want you to chase the bunny for a while. To get ahead, sock some away, and then find a balance between the greyhound bunny-chase, and savoring your life.

But the thing is that you don't know if you're going to live long enough to slow down, relax, and have fun, and discover the truth of your spiritual identity. You may not be destined to live a long life; you may not have 60 more years to discover and claim your own deepest truth -- like Breaker Morant said, you have to live every day as if it's your last, because one of these days, you're bound to be right.

So I thought it might help if I just went ahead and told you what I think is the truth of your spiritual identity ...

Actually, I don't have a clue.

I do know you are not what you look like, or how much you weigh, or how you did in school, and whether you get to start a job next Monday or not. Spirit isn't what you do, it's ... well, again, I don't actually know. They probably taught this junior year at Goucher. But I know that you feel it best when you're not doing much -- when you're in nature, when you've very quiet, or, paradoxically, listening to music.

I know you can feel it and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line, in the harmonies, in the silence between notes; in Chopin and Eminem, Emmylou Harris, Bach, whoever. You can close your eyes and feel the divine spark, concentrated in you, like a little Dr. Seuss firefly. It flickers with aliveness and relief, like an American in a foreign country who suddenly hears someone speaking in English. In the Christian tradition, they say that the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. And so you pay attention when that Dr. Seuss creature inside you sits up and says, "Yo!" We can see spirit made visible in people being kind to each other, especially when it's a really busy person, taking care of a needy annoying person. Or even if it's terribly important you, stopping to take care of pitiful, pathetic you. In fact, that's often when we see spirit most brightly.

It's magic to see spirit largely because it's so rare. Mostly you see the masks and the holograms that the culture presents as real. You see how you're doing in the world's eyes, or your family's, or -- worst of all -- yours, or in the eyes of people who are doing better than you -- much better than you -- or worse. But you are not your bank account, or your ambitiousness. You're not the cold clay lump with a big belly you leave behind when you die. You're not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are spirit, you are love, and, while it is increasingly hard to believe during this presidency, you are free. You're here to love, and be loved, freely. If you find out next week that you are terminally ill -- and we're all terminally ill on this bus -- all that will matter is memories of beauty, that people loved you, and you loved them, and that you tried to help the poor and innocent.

So how do we feed and nourish our spirit, and the spirit of others?

First, find a path, and a little light to see by. Every single spiritual tradition says the same three things: 1) Live in the now, as often as you can, a breath here, a moment there. 2) You reap exactly what you sow. 3) You must take care of the poor, or you are so doomed that we can't help you.

You don't have to go overseas. There are people right here who are poor in spirit; worried, depressed, dancing as fast as they can, whose kids are sick, or whose retirement savings are gone. There is great loneliness among us, life-threatening loneliness. People have given up on peace, on equality. They've even given up on the Democratic Party, which I haven't, not by a long shot. You do what you can, what good people have always done: You bring thirsty people water; you share your food, you try to help the homeless find shelter, you stand up for the underdog.

Anything that can help you get your sense of humor back feeds the spirit, too. In the Bill Murray army movie "Stripes," a very tense recruit announces during his platoon's introductions, "My name is Francis. No one calls me Francis. Anyone calls me Francis, I'll kill them. And I don't like to be touched -- anyone tries to touch me, I'll kill them." And the sergeant responds, "Oh, lighten up, Francis." So you may need to upgrade your friends. You need to find people who laugh gently at themselves, who remind you gently to lighten up.

Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down. Some of you start jobs Monday; some of you desperately wish you did -- some of your parents are asthmatic with anxiety that you don't. They shared this with me before the ceremony began.

But again, this is not your problem. If your family is hell-bent on you making a name for yourself in the field of, say, molecular cell biology, then maybe when you're giving them a final tour of campus, you can show them to the admissions office. I doubt very seriously that they could even get into U.C. Berkeley -- I talked to a professor who said there is not a chance he could get in these days.

So I would recommend that you all just take a long deep breath, and stop. Just be where your butts are, and breathe. Take some time. You are graduating today. Refuse to cooperate with anyone who is trying to shame you into hopping right back up onto the rat exercise wheel.

Rest, but pay attention. Refuse to cooperate with anyone who is stealing your freedom, your personal and civil liberties, and then smirking about it. I'm not going to name names. Just send money to the ACLU whenever you can.

But slow down if you can. Better yet, lie down.

In my 20s I devised a school of relaxation that has unfortunately fallen out of favor in the ensuing years -- it was called Prone Yoga. You just lie around as much as possible. You could read, listen to music, you could space out, or sleep. But you had to be lying down. Maintaining the prone.

You've graduated. You have nothing left to prove, and besides, it's a fool's game. If you agree to play, you've already lost. It's Charlie Brown and Lucy, with the football. If you keep getting back on the field, they win. There are so many great things to do right now. Write. Sing. Rest. Eat cherries. Register voters. And -- oh my God -- I nearly forgot the most important thing: refuse to wear uncomfortable pants, even if they make you look really thin. Promise me you'll never wear pants that bind or tug or hurt, pants that have an opinion about how much you've just eaten. The pants may be lying! There is way too much lying and scolding going on politically right now without your pants getting in on the act, too.

So bless you. You've done an amazing thing. And you are loved; you are capable of lives of great joy and meaning. It's what you are made of. And it's what you're for. So take care of yourselves; take care of each other. Thank you.

Posted by Greg Stone at 11:52 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 10, 2003

It all started with Lot

The archbishop of Canterbury has called a rare, emergency meeting of the leaders of the Anglican Communion because of the split caused in it by approving an openly homosexual person as bishop.

Fascinating. I applaud the approval. But as usual sex causes more of a stir than murder. Still, this got me thinking and I decided to reread those sections of the Bible that deal with homosexuality. More fascinating still. It all starts with Genesis 9 and this fellow Lot.

Seems these two guys - angels of the Lord - come to the gates of Sodom and Lot lets them in, giving them the hospitality of his home. But soon a crowd of men gather outside of Lot's home wanting "their way" with the strangers. (Sounds like a scene out of a biker movie of the '70s.) I guess they were tired of sex with the same old folks and two new men appealed to them. Lot is appalled and refuses to turn the men over to the crowd. But he offers an alternative. "Look. I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof."

Wow! What a guy! This is morality? I guess it is Old Testament style. Like slavery and slaughtering every man, woman, and child of the enemy nation. Lot protects two strange men from this sex-crazed crowd, but offers his virgin daughters in their place! Anyone who wants to point to this as an example of God's law needs to see a psychiatrist. Show me a man who will turn his daughters over to be gang raped and I will show you a coward and a criminal.

All I get out of this story is a strong affirmation of the ancient patriarchal culture of the region and the extreme emphasis placed on hospitality - the protection "of my house" - within that culture. Interesting as insights into the culture - but bankrupt as a moral guide for how we should live today.

But please note - there is something going on besides sex here and it is of fundamental importance. What is going on is violence. What is going on is promiscuity. What is going on is forced sex. The real problem is not homosexual sex versus heterosexual sex. The real problem is force. The real problem is violence. The real problem is rape. These are the abuses of sex. These are the ways in which we take a joyous gift and turn it into something ugly. It is not the sexual acts that are ugly. They do not, in themselves, separate us from God. Done in love they bring us closer to God. What is ugly - what separates us from God - what is commonly called "sin" - is the force, the rejection of love in favor of lust - the doing unto others what we would never wish done to ourselves. That is the lesson of value from this ancient writing.

It is the old story. Someone points to God. We study their finger instead of looking at where they're pointing. So it is we get hung up on the sexual acts per se instead of the violence with which they are done. I'm not saying this is what was in the mind of the author of the story. I don't know what that ancient author was thinking. I am saying this is the only value I can draw from the story as told.

And if you look closely at the letters of Paul - at Romans 1:24-27, Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8 you will find something very similar. Yes, Paul writes in these passages of homosexuality. And yes, I think Paul appears to be condemning homosexuality in general. But as I look at the specifics I see something else and it raises a fundamental question: Is he condemning homosexual sex - or sex without love? Read these passages in context and you will see that in each case he includes the homosexual acts with a whole cartload of other evils. The common thread here is not the acts - but the abuse of the acts. Was that his intention? I don't know. Again, this is what I get out of reading it today.

In Corinthians, for example, he condemns "drunkards and revilers" in the same breath as he condemns "male prostitutes." Yet Jesus not only drank wine, but he urged his followers to drink wine in remembrance of him. And it was not only in this formal way that Jesus drank wine. Jesus drank it joyously at weddings and other social gatherings - and was, himself, a party goer. So Paul's condemnation of drunkards is not a condemnation of the act of drinking alcoholic beverages.

For me the lesson is simple. Good things - gifts of God - can be abused and it is the abuse that separates us from God, not the acts in and of themselves. There is nothing inherently wrong with sex, homosexual or heterosexual. There is nothing inherently wrong with wine. There is nothing inherently wrong with a joyous gathering of friends. But all these good things - and many others - can be wrong when we do them having abandoned love. This frequently happens when we pursue them in excess and it certainly happens when we pursue them for money.

Paul will argue for a celibate, monastic life. I would argue that such a life is unnatural - for me. Does that mean it was unnatural for him? Only Paul can answer that. I can appreciate it that some feel naturally inclined to celibacy. Perhaps they have no, or very little, sexual desires. But if they are not so inclined - if they are biting their lips and rejecting sex, then they too are separating themselves from God, for they are rejecting the gifts of God. But these gifts must be accepted in love and it is love that is the arbiter - not the act, but the spirit in which it is carried out.

It is not love, unless the feelings are mutual.

So the Anglican Communion is split over homosexuality. If I were still an Episcopalian I would try to remind my associates that the first commandment was to love God and the second our neighbor and how you get from those commandments to hating and fearing homosexuals is beyond me.

I honestly hope that in the end this controversy will prove helpful to the Episcopal Church - that it will make people face reality, consider significant issues, and consider what the true priorities of Jesus were. Come to think of it, the man was over 30, unmarried, and spent most of the time running around the dessert with a dozen other guys. Maybe the Episcopalians have been worshipping a homosexual all along?

OK, I'm being rhetorical here and trying to shock those who are offended by homosexuality, yet love Jesus. Of course there can be many reasons for a person to be 30 and unmarried. And in the kind of patriarchical society in which he was raised, it would certainly be natural for a man to choose all male leaders and surround himself with them. But the bottom line is we don't really know much about the historical Jesus and his sexual orientation. I think it's healthy to ask ourselves - what if we suddenly had incontrovertible proof that Jesus was a homosexual? Would it matter? Should it matter? Would we suddenly reject his entire message? The Man was all about love - he preached it and he lived it better than anyone before or since.

The real question is, are we so hung up on our sexual identities (and the demands of the body and evolution for procreation) that we would reject the "son of God" simply because we did not like his sexual choices? Do we really find such a Jesus less appealing than our man Lot, who is so eager to protect two strangers that he offers his innocent daughters to be gang raped? Christians need to ask themselves whether they want to live within the writings of the Old Covenant with their God, or the New Covenant - the New Being.

To give Lot his due, he did oppose the crowd. But his solution is as appalling as the crowd's desire, if not more so. One can argue that within the context of his time and culture it made sense. Exactly. We need to see all writing in context and we need to make our own decisions within our present context. As for me, I really don't feel I can learn much from the guy who was eager to sell out his virgin daughters, nor can I learn much from the writer who thought it was good to hold this man up as a role model.

Posted by Greg Stone at 04:37 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 07, 2003

Brights, Dulls, Quakers and Forces

Facilitating Paradox: Stretching Bright?

Aaaaccccch! I guess I just hate labels - in fact, I don't much care for naming anything. So the current discussion going on in several places over the newly coined term "Bright" bothers me on levels other than those being discussed.

Oh, I see the practical advantages of both labels and names - but so often we name something, then set it aside and never look at it again. Well, we look at it again, but we never see it again. Thus it was that I feel I long ago lost the night sky because all the stars fit into named patterns for me. I can't see the stars as they really are - I see them through the eyes of ancient people who made them into patterns, or I see them through the eyes of modern scientists who attach all sorts of descriptive labels to them. But I can't just see them. And thus, too, I am in constant danger of losing the magic of birds as I strive to identify them.

What a strange battle it causes, this striving to identify and name helps us to communicate - and yet destroys our deeper sense of wonder and of seeing. If it is so with a bird or a star, how much more so with a person?

With that caveat I do agree that all is natural - and that includes all the so-called "creations" of man. We haven't created anything - we've simply rearranged what was already here using the natural material of our brains and bodies to do so. I just don't think we know all - whether we are "bright" or "dull." I think we tremendously over estimate our knowledge of everything.

Yes, we know a lot about relationships - if you do this, then this other thing will happen. We can tell you under what conditions hydrogen and oxygen interact to make water. But we know very little about the how and why of things. It's all a string of descriptions. We hide the reality of our ignorance behind names - such as "gravity," or "the weak force." As much as we're able to deconstruct things we never get at their essence. We keep taking them apart until there's nothing left - well, nothing more that we can detect with our current collection of detectors. Yet we don't know what anything is, perhaps because in trying to know it we have destroyed it. (Hmmm... is his the uncertainty principle again?)

The names give us a way to talk about these things that is extremely useful in curing disease and building airplanes - but I feel it also hides them from our view. It gives us a false sense of knowing. If it is so with scientific names, how much more so with the labels we apply to these complex collections of apparent contradictions we call human beings? What is really hidden behind names such as Quaker, Christian, Unitarian, and Buddhist to mention just a few? I could apply any of these labels to myself, but I know none would really fit - but if I did they would help you think you know me. And maybe they would help satisfy my herd instinct - make me feel a little less alone - for awhile.

Perhaps I'm going too far afield. Perhaps I just don't like the self-application of the term "Bright" because it sounds too self-congratulatory. As someone said, so what are the rest of us - dull? "Bright" sounds like an adjective, not a noun - a challenge, not a name. Who invented this, the Wizard of Oz? Afterall, he handed out labels and certificates to help a lion and a tin man recognize their better qualities. Have the skeptics been skipping down the Yellow Brick Road all these years? Who woulda thunk it?

Frankly I know a lot of very intelligent people who in the past have called themselves skeptics. I admit this term carries negative connocations that are perhaps undesirable and undeserved. I certainly understand the desire to want to better define oneself. But "bright" - it sounds like these folks have been nursing this sense of being wronged for too long and now have simply over-corrected. And no, I won't suggest another label. I've kinda had it up to here with naming - come to think of it, one of my pet peeves is yet another label we toss around very, very loosely - "god." Now there's a word I'd love to see a moratorium on! It means everything and nothing. It has the practical disadvantage of hindering communications (because we don't even come close to agreeing on a definition) and the more subtle and important disadvantage of erasing that sense of the greatest mystery of all.

Posted by Greg Stone at 05:06 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack