Wednesday, October 23, 2013

the world spins

It gets to a point where so much matters so much that nothing seems to matter at all. It’s not that it doesn’t matter any more, but one ceases to consider its mattering in a way that could possibly matter.

I took a class in college called Contemporary World Affairs. Professor Frank wanted to challenge our young minds past the soft white light of our existence in that small Christian college on the affluent north shore of Chicago. During that semester Haldeman, Erlichman and Mitchell were convicted and sentenced to prison, the grizzly bear was declared a threatened species, and thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled from Quang Ngai province. We had to report on something in the news every week. After class one day I told Dr. Frank that I was getting overwhelmed by it all and felt that one person couldn’t make a difference.

Was I feeling sorry for myself? I knew that my existence was privileged, and I had nothing to complain about. But a human being wants to do something, fix something when it’s wrong. When the wrongness takes control, victimhood extends even to the comfortable.

But I was on the wrong track. I listen to myself feeling sorry for myself then, when I believed I was truly sorry for someone else. Yet I joined the ranks of the informed-without-change. Like a sandpiper living at the edge of the shore, I picked at meaning for daily sustenance and have done so ever since. There were times I dove in and went to great lengths to be part of change. But I hit a wall of my own discomfort and turned back.

I have asked myself, how is Wendell Berry one of the biggest influencers of environmental activism, yet he does not own a computer? He pushes a plow behind a horse to cultivate his land. He works health into and out of the soil for the long haul. In some way he is timeless, yet everything I have read of or about Berry has been on a computer. In fact, most of what I learn about the world is washed ashore right here in my lap, and I am frantically skittering through the surf with fingers and eyes picking at meaning to gobble up.

My professor wanted me to be informed. Gradually, exponentially even in the nearly 40 years since my college class, we have become the most informed human beings in the history of the planet. What has this done for the planet?


  1. ruth, information is but one strong pebble on that beach, the truth being the splash of all the pebbles, but we, in our smallness, only focus on one pebble at a time. this is not the bad thing. the bad thing is that the rest of the beach is covered in sparkling baubles that we have placed in response to the attention, if we can call it attention, but really what it is is inattention dressed up like attention (in the form of consumerism, not just the obvious purchase and acquire consumerism, but consumerism of the spirit as well) to fill the glut of void in self and society that we do not care to look at for fear there is no meaning.

    I think of the claude glass. I pull this from wiki: "A Claude glass (or black mirror) is a small mirror, slightly convex in shape, with its surface tinted a dark colour. Bound up like a pocket-book or in a carrying case, Claude glasses were used by artists, travelers and connoisseurs of landscape and landscape painting. Claude glasses have the effect of abstracting the subject reflected in it from its surroundings, reducing and simplifying the colour and tonal range of scenes and scenery to give them a painterly quality.

    They were famously used by picturesque artists in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a frame for drawing sketches of picturesque landscapes.[1] The user would turn his back on the scene to observe the framed view through the tinted mirror—in a sort of pre-photographic lens—which added the picturesque aesthetic of a subtle gradation of tones."

  2. can you imagine such ingenuity and absurdity? and yet have you been a concert lately? a school performance? a birthday party? a landscape look-out? we are all filtering reality through our devices. imagine what we do as people! instead of looking at the world directly, or touching the world directly as berry does, man through body (this already being distance but being the right distance as sensually, then transmuted to spiritually or soulfulness if we pay attention, is the way in which mankind experiences the world), we create all sorts of extra distance through screens, literal and metaphorical. this artificial distance is what is killing both our environment (and as a consequence our bodies in terms of being affected by the pollution we have imposed upon the world) and our spirit suffers miserably, not as a consequence of dying. we are all dying. but as a consequence of distance from what we rightfully are. which brings me back to the point of avoidance and attention. before we might make any changes in the world we must make changes in the self and in order to make changes in the self we must confront our fundamental fear in the form of the question which is, do we have a purpose? (closely related to the question, what are we?) we must spend a good long uncomfortable time on this question and finally give in to the answer no, we have no purpose other than being, for no other answer can truly be arrived at without introducing a new set of unanswerable questions. and so in being what do we give credence to? fundamentally, before we can answer this, we must note that if we have the right to be here, to be, then the next generation has the right to be here as well. this being the case (now we are being simple and meagre aren't we, and yet the solutions to existing on our finite planet lie here) we must note that in order for the next generations to exist we must be stewards of this planet, not the glutinous consumers of goods we are. in other words we must be sustainable.

    the simple philosophical questions need to be addressed individually. need to be. must be. (and yet where are the philosophers of today, the philosophers who used to act as guides for the society current? we have given them up for entertainment and personal gain, stroking our tiny vulnerable egos at every step of our existential existence, and this from a woman who does believe in god but god in a more radical and less self-imbued way.) if we act sustainably, if we have our hands on our soil, on our food supply, on our environment, on tomorrow! - what comes from this is an international state of peace for our focus becomes on our own being, on our own ability to exist inside our precious moments. and what builds from this, as berry purports, and I think proves often, time and time again, is community and community spirit which fosters empathy and compassion.

    so yes, how do we change the world? we change ourselves. but sadly this too from a hypocrite of a woman who works on her spirituality, consumes little but yet too much without (yet) getting her hands too dirty in the soil which sustains us.

    i love that you have been in a dialogue with yourself and the world for this long. let it never end, not even with you, but let it become an epidemic that spreads and causes us all the discomfort that we so badly need)))))


    1. Erin, focusing on one pebble at a time is a very good thing. It is when I don't know where to focus that the drowning begins.

      Your conjuring of the Claude glass is a perfect analogy to this distance of virtual living we do. (I had not heard of this, and though the wiki passage described it perfectly, I googled an image.)

      I read your words on separation and I believe them wholeheartedly. I have long thought, since leaving the church, that the only "sin" is separation, seeing ourselves as separate. It is the beginning of the end of everything good when we do this. Within the Christian beliefs I thought of God as separate, Other. This was utter wrongness! How then, if God (yes, or god, or divinity, or essence, or whatever we call this essential Life, this being) is within us, and we attend to this wonder in our own self, how then can we consider anyone or anything in this world separate? I do not think it is possible. I believe completely that if we bore this consciousness together, every one of us, there would have to be peace. Just being, together.

      It is as the little film by James Broughton that you shared with me says and shows, so beguilingly, This is It. :) What wonder this miraculous life is.

      To find myself swimming in angst, and then wash up on the shore with you, my friend, is a great comfort. ღ

    2. Should be: If we "bear" this consciousness together ...

  3. First step, becoming aware. Without that awareness, that knowledge of the world, we can never begin to walk in the other's shoes.

    1. Rosaria, it is such an essential part of our existence, I feel, and yet it seems to me that few desire to live this way. I am convinced that if I were to spend one hour, just one hour, with anyone, listening, only listening, I would begin to understand them and their point of view, and I would not want to judge them.

  4. I found this quote by Lao Tzu, a famous Chinese philosopher, on a blog recently:

    "Would you like to save the world from the degradation and destruction it seems destined for? Then step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on your own self-awareness. If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation."

    And of course this raises the question: can we *really* "save the world", and is that what we should be focused on in the first place... My own belief at this point is that we cannot, nor do we need to, "save the world." This need to "fix" comes from the false assumption of the "wrongness" of it, and the need to take control over something which we cannot control, and try to "fix" something that only appears to be broken, based on our perceptions. We must look beyond the "brokenness" to what is behind it, to what actually animates this life. What if we just held the paradox that there will always be entropy and suffering, that it is the way of the world, the way of existence, and that it is all okay as it is without trying to *fix* it so that we can feel comfortable in ourselves, as you mention.

    I used to think I could "save the world" - now there is a different perspective, that life unfolds the way it does for whatever reason. It's not a matter of not caring, or not being informed, but viewing life through a different lens, as erin alludes to...

    The ultimate question, according to "awakened" spiritual teachers, is: Who am I? (Not to be answered by the mind). It is not a question of identity, or purpose, or role, but WHAT is *really* here, *living* this life experience that we call "me"? What is *really* seeing through these eyes? The task then, as espoused by many spiritual teachers, is to *awaken* to that Eternal Beingness that we are; becoming *aware* of what is Aware in us. This is not esoteric, or an existential wall of words, but what the true "spiritual path" is about. I wrote recently on my own post on "Entropy" that the "healing of mankind is in the *recognition* of the truth of our Eternal Beingness. The invitation is to expand our view of reality and return to the *awareness* of our Eternal Being" - That within us which can never be destroyed. It seems that we are strangers to our True Selves, and in that lies the upheaval, suffering and chaos in the world that we see.

    What "matters" then is the awareness of That Eternal Beingness that we are all so alienated from, not the "maintenance" of that which doesn't last - that which is impermanent and dissipating *naturally* - but that which will never die in us - our Infinite Eternal Essence... <3

    1. Christine, I so appreciate all that you've written, and how it echoes what Erin wrote, which I also appreciate very deeply. I am abundantly wealthy with these gifts.

      I remember something you wrote another time when I felt utterly unfocused and angst-ridden, that it is the belief that things should be other than they are that causes this angst. This need to "fix" comes from the false assumption of the "wrongness" of it . . . Byron Katie says things should be as they are, as long as they are the way they are. I need to remind myself of this every so often (more often than I do, I think). But this does not mean transformation does not happen, because it does. It is our very nature to transform, as it is in all of Nature. Why do I not trust this process to occur? Why do I think it is up to me to make it happen? It is silly to think that way, and it is human.

      In some way, the tension is beautiful. The release that comes after the pain is better than if the pain had not existed. As Erin says, we must bear the discomfort of this world. At the same time, we can continually give up this great weight to the transformation that Life is always orchestrating. And is the music not sweet, and tender, and deep? ღ

  5. Your last paragraph seems to prompt a response from Eliot:

    "Where is the Life we have lost in living?
    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

    1. Dear George, oh yes. Simply, yes.

      Thank you for bringing me these lines again. I thought they were in Four Quartets and searched without finding them. This led me to find them in Choruses from The Rock, a rich discovery.

      And in all this process, his words from Four Quartets:

      The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
      Is the wisdom of humility : humility is endless.

      Thank you, my friend.

  6. After reading all the comments above, dear Ruth (let alone your own post), I am dying to Skype with you about our trip to America. We just got back home yesterday and are settling back in. I have never felt more UN-American in my life!

    One thing of which I am very aware is that with more info than we can handle at our fingertips every day, we see a world today that was possibly very similar 40 years ago...but without knowing or seeing it?! More when we talk next....

    1. Oh Boots! I want to hear all about it. I remember well our re-entries from Istanbul, and how out of place I felt after settling into a different kind of being in another place. Why do so many want to be more American?

      I agree with you, that it is not that the world is so different now (except, perhaps, environmentally, after this ravaging industrial age), but that we know more about it. And now I remember what Susan Sontag talks about in On Photography, and that when we see a photograph from anywhere, a place we do not know, we somehow think we do know, just by seeing. Awareness is good, but awareness alone does not bring understanding.

      I can't wait to catch up with you. xoxo

  7. Lots of ideas in this thoughtful piece, Ruth, and too many to explore in one brief comment. However, re. how one person can make a difference, ref. Jean Giono's 'The Man Who Planted Trees'. Also you might like to take a look at this:

    1. Having recently read "The Man Who Planted Trees" (at your suggestion) and now your post on the straw crosses placed one by one on the fence, I do see what you mean, Robert. Some things need to be done, just because it's the right thing to do (like planting trees to naturalize that bit of earth), regardless of the consequences. Other things beg to be done as a representation of unity, which is how I see the straw crosses. I guess there must be as many reasons for carrying on, one person and task at a time, as there are people and tasks.

      Thank you!

    2. ... and besides that, there are the consequences and results of carrying on, for the good of all things.

  8. I'm sorry I missed this thought provoking post earlier.
    The perennial problem - sensory and information overload. I think of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf both of whom were hypersensitive to everything.
    Not useful to be fine-tuned, perhaps.
    I was fascinated by the 'Claude glass' which I had only vaguely heard of.
    Only solution is to focus very small like Morandi.
    Or perhaps shoot the television and not read the NY Times ( I'm being flippant)
    The Dalai Lama is somewhat helpful :"My religion is kindness".

  9. Whenever I find myself asking these same questions, I think of Gandhi:
    You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

  10. Hi Ruth. Well, we could be monstrously misled in our shoreside ambitions, grievously self-deceived into thinking that the little nests of meaning we build somehow are for the world more than ourselves ... Yet maybe we are more deceived into thinking we could matter much to the world anyway. I love Wendell Berry, but what I treasure most about him is a small poem about walking in the woods alone on the Sabbath. All we can do is nudge the level. Best.-- Brendan

  11. In reading this post and these most thoughtful comments I'm reminded of Julian of Norwich's "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Yet we characterize her as a "mystic," as if she were out of touch with mundane reality. Perhaps she was more like Berry. And I appreciate your reference to Byron Katie, Ruth.

    Our upbringing didn't help us see things as they are - we were told that the world was going to hell and we were told how to fix that. Ugh. It's very hard to escape the "we've gotta fix that" mode of thinking.

    In the end, knowledge matters because we say that it matters. And who are we? We are but specks on this planet and this spinning world is but a speck in our (?) ever-expanding universe. I, too, am coming to believe that the only thing that matters is that we are able to help each other find our way to seeing things simply as they are, to accepting them simply as they are, to loving them simply as they are. As specks we are all in the same boat. To change the picture, we are all pebbles on the seashore.

    Indeed, Ruthie, your blog's "washed stones" theme exemplifies this well. Thank you. Your work implies, I think, that the essential question is how do we help each other be who we are?

    On a lighter note, your very first paragraph reminded me of Dad's definition of one who had earned a Ph.D., "one who has learned more and more about less and less until he has learned everything about nothing at all."

  12. I think that many civilizations have come and gone, and this will be repeated again and again, as a wheel. We get some knowledge, and much greed. We disagree and have wars. More greed, more wars, and pouf – another civilization gone! The best is to live for the moment and try to be the best you can be and do the least harm.

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