Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Mountain: Final Note Toward A Medium Opus XIV

I was thinking this would never end, if that's any comfort.

It all began with two distinct thoughts after reading an article nearly thirty years ago: How is it possible I cannot grasp the meaning of the phrase "one billion kilometers"? How is it possible the "laws of celestial mechanics" could be completely wrong? Over the ensuing years and decades, I've ventured far and wide as the initial path branched off, sometimes several times, until the relationships among the variety of things I was studying started to look nonexistent. What possible relationship exists among the theology of Jurgen Moltmann, the philosophy of Isaiah Berlin, the cosmology of Hawking, and the detailed description of the life and times of the ai-ai?

It wasn't a flash of light that illuminated the many dark paths. It wasn't some marvelous book of wisdom or thought or insight that made me stop and think, "Wow! So that's it." Rather, it was the realization that all these shared one thing in common: Me.

I say that with absolutely no boasting. They were meaningful and important precisely because they were meaningful and important to me. That did not and does not mean I am under any obligation to make any other individual care about any of them. Their importance for me shaped the way I thought and, more important, how I communicated my sense and understanding of the world to others. Beyond that, well, so what? The tie that bound them together is the language I choose to use to describe my understanding of the world, but that is hardly a big deal. That's all any of us do.

Far from something that brought a sense of pride, this coalescing understanding made me understand even more how little I had about which to boast. After all, what had I learned? That the world exists quite independent of me and my concerns; that we human beings, in trying to make our way in the world, run up against obstacles to our understanding that are impossible to overcome; that the world, and the larger universe in which we exist, is filled with all sorts of strange and beautiful things and creatures and events and none of it has anything to do with me. Even those things that seem so intimately connected with human life - the need for clarity in matters of social life, for example; an understanding of the faith I claim as central in my life - do not concern themselves with me, in particular. All these things, even the far less certain realities of human society and religious practice, exist without me being a part of them. They existed before I came a long. Centuries after I'm dead and dust, they will continue in ways that I cannot, now, imagine.

The only thing that really matters for me is how I make my way through this life. Living with others, being with those I love, struggling against those things I understand dehumanize and are otherwise detrimental to the full flowering of the humanity of others. These matter; even then, however, they only matter to me and for me.

There's a famous saying that describes the way of wisdom in Zen Buddhism: "First, there is a mountain. Then, there is no mountain. There is a mountain."  I spent a very long time indeed denying the existence of the mountain, insisting there had to "be" "more". Understanding that meaning was nothing more than the way we human beings put words together about things started to clear the haze. I started to see that mountain, but I wasn't sure if I was really seeing it.
A couple weeks ago, though, when those photos from the Cassini Spacecraft showing the geysers on Enceladus flashed on my computer screen, I understood that it was, in fact, just a mountain. That lack of understanding about what "one billion kilometers" might actually mean? Nothing more than a specific instance of human wonder, undamaged even by the mathematical detail. It is more than possible to look at the night sky, or listen to the rustling of the leaves on a forest floor, or look in to the face of another person, and for all that we can describe what we know and understand about these things, still let what we don't understand be a part of our understanding. As for those "laws", well calling them "laws" is a bit presumptuous. Mathematical descriptions of possible resolution of the movement along the arcs circumscribed by the ellipses to which certain objects are restricted are not "laws"; they serve as ways not only of understanding and interpreting the variety of things we encounter, but also of predicting how we should interpret our encounter with events of a similar class under similar conditions. When those Shepherd Moons were found to trace a mutually orbiting double helix - the path around which both revolved in a spiral motion was itself an elliptical line; that spiral, though, was nothing the understanding of celestial mechanics could have predicted - the scientists encountering the phenomena came to the conclusion pretty quickly that our understanding of celestial mechanics, for all it had been pretty well developed (we got a spacecraft from Earth to Saturn, right on schedule after all) was also fairly primitive. That understanding had to change precisely because the data encountered didn't fit our understanding. Again, no big deal.

Everything's connected because we human beings have to understand all this stuff, and so much more, to make our way through life in this world. None of it is any big deal. Our understanding of it is no big deal; it's all there, for the taking, should any of us be so inclined. Not being so inclined, however, doesn't make one somehow less human.

All that is, well . . . it just is. That's it and that's all. No big deal, no mystery, no deeper meaning or significance to any of it. We do not lose a scintilla of awe or wonder, fear or joy, when the clouds lift and the mountain stands there, clear and real. It is just as worthy of celebration as before; it just doesn't mean anything, is all.

Virtual Tin Cup

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