February 12, 2006

Ia Ora Te Nature, Part 2

Reading and responding to your comments on my previous post — intelligent and thought-provoking comments that helped me much — I began thinking again of the sidewalk-inscription experience and what I might learn from it and where I might take it and what direction I might glimpse in anything any of you had said…

And it occurred to me to ask myself, “What kind of person runs around looking for a sign, wishing for a sign, and gets a sign clear as day, and then keeps running around, wringing his hands, and wonders, ‘Was it a sign? Was it really a sign? Will other people think it was a sign? And what do you do with a sign, anyway?’”

The answer came to me in a flash of insight: “A shmuck, that’s who.”

Yes, a fool, a clown, a numbskull. Because it was a sign. (Thanks, Natalie.)

I don’t know who or what gave me the sign. I don’t know whether it was God or a time-traveling descendant of mine from the year 4,000 AD or my own unconscious, but I know it’s something aimed right at me that I need to pay attention to.

If you’re skating on a frozen Wisconsin lake and you see a sign, “Thin Ice,” you don’t know who put the sign there – was it the city? a homeowner from the shore? an ice fisherman? Someone who had fallen in and nearly drowned? – nor do you know precisely how reliable the sign is – has the ice frozen harder since it was put up? is the signmaker overly cautious? Was he just playing a joke? – but you know it’s best to skate in a wide path around there, or approach cautiously if you decide to test it. (The thing you can most reliably assume is that you didn’t make the sign yourself, which in this case may only show that the analogy isn’t perfect.)

I don’t know exactly what the sign means, but I can make a couple of common-sense inferences:

• It means that nature is mysteriously alive in ways that go beyond our everyday understanding, and that death is part of its ultimately benevolent mystery
• It means that signs themselves can be meaningful to me, can be part of the way I find meaning in life. This was a metasign, in other words, a breakthrough into sign-reading.

Despite my longtime flirtation with the spiritual, I’ve really been very skeptical and cynical about belief systems most of my life. I was raised that way. My search for things worth believing in has been an effort to overcome that negativism in my upbringing, and it’s been more of a search for things I couldn’t disdain than for things to actively embrace. Active belief has seemed, for too long, beyond my range.

I’ve known people who seemed to live by magical thinking, finding omens and portents in trivial coincidences, making their decisions based on newspaper astrology columns, and so forth, and I’ve disdained that in them. I’ve seen how, in some cases, it led them into wrong turns, fruitless pursuits, self-deception. (On the other hand, I also know people whose lives have taken dramatic, positive turns in the aftermath of signs.)

Of course it’s important to be judicious. But is it judicious to let reflexive disdain keep one from seeing what is there? The truth can choose the humblest, most unlikely means to make itself known to us — if it comes in the form of a Jimmy Buffett song — that doesn’t mean I should dismiss it. All the more intriguing, in fact.

Children believe in things. My ten-year-old, Agent 95, once told me, “I believe in everything.” He believes in the Greek gods, he believes in heaven and hell, he believes in ghosts and witches – describe a fantasy world to him and he’ll accept it unhesitatingly as real.

I used to think that childish belief was merely a delusion to get over, to replace with a rational adult understanding of cause and effect, of demonstrable phenomena. It only occurs to me now, at this late date, that that belief of mine was as unexamined as a child’s belief in Santa Claus. Belief has a function in human life, just as play does. Children play. They play more than adults, but adults, if they know what’s good for them, allow themselves to play too. Good parents don’t prohibit their kids from playing. Play is a necessary preparation for adult work and social behavior, and it’s the foundation for enjoyment of life, without which work and social life would be meaningless.

Analogously, as an adult I need to allow myself to believe. Believe in what? Believe in myself, to begin with: believe that I’m capable of finding authentic, positive meaning in the world around me (I’ve had all too much experience in finding negative meaning) and — what’s always been the hard part — that I can take positive, effective action on it.

And believe in something else, too, even if I feel unworthy to define or describe it. One thing that has always kept me from accepting any specific religion is that I think God is fundamentally incomprehensible to the human mind, and thus theology is mostly arrogant guesswork and culture-bound fantasizing. Nevertheless, I’ve felt, for equally long, that it’s guesswork and fantasizing about something real.

A Buddhist adage I like very much is that all religious doctrines are like fingers pointing at the moon. If we concentrate on looking at the finger, we’re missing the idea. (In modern terms, someone who looks at a finger instead of what the finger is pointing at is autistic.) We need to look at the moon.

But then, a person pointing at the moon can be beautiful. Imagine a crowd of people lining the shores of a lake, all pointing up toward a full moon in a clear winter sky. There is as much reason to point at those people as at the moon. And we see them in the moon’s light.

Once, a dozen or so years ago, I was lying back from a wonderful Greek vacation, and as we flew over a mountain range, the English-speaking young Greek sitting beside me pointed to the tallest one:

“That’s Mount Olympos.”

I was chilled to the core with awe. Flying above the home of the gods.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the gods really lived there?” I said.

And he said: “They do.”

And of course he was right, although not literally. The principle that created the cosmos was not an extended family of incestuous troublemakers hopping from mountaintop to wartorn plain in a little country on an obscure planet with a Bronze Age technology. But the things we thought and wrote about those soap-opera characters were part of what has brought us to parsing out the quarks and creating artificial intelligence and knowing our own genes: part of a long, long inquiry that may one day show us who we really are — and then make us more than that. And Greek religion, with all its silliness and grotesquerie, was pointing (more the mystery cults than the Olympian fables, no doubt) to the same moon that Buddhism and Judaism and Christianity are, even if the pointing finger belonged to someone boisterously inebriated and under-age, reeling with the conceited laughter of the precocious, still half in the grip of nursery tales.

Knowing who posted a sign may be interesting, but it’s not as important as knowing what the sign says. The sign said, “Shmuck, look at the moon!”