Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shaken: Notes Toward A Medium Opus XII

You lethargic, waiting upon me, waiting for the fire and I attendant upon you, shaken by your beauty Shaken by your beauty Shaken.
William Carlos Williams, Paterson
The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.
Wallace Stevens
Some people find themselves overwhelmed by this life and the many ways it undermines our confidence that living, not just surviving but thriving, is its own reward, offered to those who are willing to risk. Whether because of personal tragedy, perhaps, or being caught in the crossfire of forces beyond our control or even our ken, so many people find themselves, as an old phrase has it, "too much with this world."

An odd turn of phrase, I think, because it suggests that "this world" is a place so filled with darkness and depravity that to sink in to it is to mire oneself without hope of escape, except death. I would be the last to claim there is no such thing as evil in the world. I just wrote quite a bit about some of the horrors we encounter when we look around us. If this all this life had to offer, I wonder how it is possible any of us move forward, day to day.
Life, however, is not just strange and terrible; it is also punctuated by moments of such power, to which we assign a variety of words such as love and grace and even beauty, they can come close to breaking us. It is often suggested that the power of beauty and love are so much greater than evil is demonstrated precisely because such moments are rare and brief.  Imagine, if you will, existing for all time in that single moment when you held your new-born child in your arms for the first time. Or perhaps that eternal second when you gazed in to the eyes of the first person for whom you felt real, honest love.

Even speaking of the possibility of the existence of such moments leaves us struggling to find the words to do them justice; they become smaller, somehow, less vital if we try to describe them, or even narrate them. The world is more than just the terrors we know far too well. It is also, occasionally so filled with joy and wonder we can find ourselves staggering to grasp the events we have experienced. 

The human need to understand the world as best we can, a survival strategy all living creatures possess to some degree or other in order to succeed, includes an ability, unique to Homo sapiens sapiens (so far as we can know), to experience singular events as qualitatively distinct in a way for which our normal means of communication has only limited descriptive power. We speak of them as ineffable, perhaps; transcendent is another word, implying that for all their uniqueness, their singularity in time and space they also, in some way we cannot understand, spread beyond those moments, filling much of the rest of our lives with some kind of meaning that is, yet, beyond our ability to articulate. Beauty, joy, the peace that comes with sharing a moment with a beloved Other, love - these are things that, in whatever form they present themselves, offer the opportunity to say, "Yes" even in the midst of all the clamoring voices demanding only "No" as a response.
After the final no there comes a yes and on that yes the future of the world hangs.
Wallace Stevens
For all that there are strange and terrible things in our Universe, perhaps a near infinity we cannot even imagine yet, to concede either to ignorance or fear the final judgment on these matters is an act not only of moral and existential cowardice; it is an act of singular, perhaps even purposeful, amnesia. Even as death takes our loved ones, sometimes a bit at a time, are we going to yield the field in the face of those moments, much shorter by some temporal measure of events, that nevertheless weigh as much in the scale as these drawn out times of pain and loss and suffering? We human beings have a gift, as I say, unique in the Universe. We can experience joy and beauty so powerful it leaves us shaking, mute in our attempts to convey the events and their import, yet assured that existence, for all its terrors, also holds moments that defy our sometimes overwhelming preference to give in to fear. 

Stripped of the slightly indigo prose, love and beauty and joy exist as much as hatred and ugliness and sorrow; these experiences of the better things life has to offer are so fleeting precisely because of the immense power they hold, the danger that power poses to our equanimity. Human beings can survive long bouts of depression; I do believe living too long in those moments when happiness overwhelms us would leave us a husk, unable to function.

Understanding this reality was a necessary part of coming to grips with my changing understanding of the world. Even something as technical as physics contains a kind of beauty that cannot be reduced to equations or their interpretation. All of life shares in this singular quality: From the array of experiences and events through which we human beings live, we find meaning and purpose, always with the occasional surprise that at any moment, something that breaks the bounds of our ability to make clear may yet occur. We may be left shaken by the experience, but it will always remain with us, these defining moments that escape our ability to define.

Virtual Tin Cup

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