If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
– 1 Kings 19.1-9, NRSV
Elijah lived his life mostly in solitude, marginal to the popular religion of the day, marginal to the power politics of the day. It was from the solitary margins that Elijah recentered the life of Israel. For people schooled in a biblical imagination, the [modern-day] fascination with numbers and goals as a sign of efficacy is strange indeed. Virtually all the men and women who prepared the way of the Lord, which became the way of Jesus, worked at the margins of their societies and cultures. Elijah is conspicuous but is in no way unique. The story of Elijah is told from nine site locations. Only one, Mt. Carmel, provided a public stage for a crowd of people. All the others were out-of-the-way and marginal.
This is important. Elijah appeared from time to time without fanfare and then disappeared from public life without notice. Basically, he lived a solitary life in obscurity, but his formative impact on how we as a people of God understand responsibility and witness in society is inescapable and irreversible. It never goes out of style and by God’s grace is replicated in every generation. The essence of the way of solitude is that it counters the world’s way, the culture’s way. What Elijah did, and what his contemporary progeny does, is purge our imaginations of this world’s assumptions on how life is lived, on what counts in life, and on where power comes from.
Earlier this week my dad had a major round of chemotherapy that totally wiped out his immune system. And yesterday he received a dose of his own stem cells, harvested about ten days ago, that will regrow his white blood cells. But in the meantime he will be spending a lot of time alone. He has to, so that he won’t get sick. For at least two months or so he’ll be away from his church and his friends who love him, and away from his family too for the most part. Though he is loved by many, he will pass these days in silence and at the margins of life. So I’m thinking about what that would be like. Tonight I’m thinking about solitude.
It doesn’t get a lot of press these days, but solitude has been a major deal within Christianity for centuries. Richard Foster calls it one of the central disciplines of the faith. And it’s good for us to listen to voices from the margins, voices purified in the flame of silence. Here is a sample of such voices. All have something to tell us about solitude and the interior life. Not all of these will speak to everyone, but perhaps there is at least one good word here for each reader.
1. DROWNING IN COMMUNITY, Annemarie S. Kidder, from The Power of Solitude: Discovering Your True Self in a World of Nonsense and Noise (2007). Building connection, maintaining friendship, nurturing fellowship — all are considered building blocks in the emergence of a healthy self. But the popular emphasis on community and relationship has blurred the boundaries between a personality that is self-differentiated and interdependent and one that is dependent on others for self-definition. Often the participation in and belonging to a certain community covers up and overshadows the soul’s need to develop an autonomous self. By over-identifying with the community, the soul is drowned by external demands and unable to hear its own pulse and life. Stepping back from these external demands, taking stock of where community ends and the “I” begins will require solitude. Reflection, soul-searching, self-examination are needed for the autonomous self to emerge that is aware of veiled projections, irrational expectations, and blurred boundaries. When the need to belong overpowers our need to become and simply be, we give greater importance to externals than internals, to public image than to personal growth, to others’ voices than God’s voice whispering in the soul.
2. THE VEIL OF WORDS, Thomas Merton (Cistercian, 1915-1968), from Thoughts in Solitude. The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke-screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things. In solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things. And yet we find that the nakedness of reality which we have feared, is neither a matter of terror or of shame. It is clothed in the friendly communion of silence, and this silence is related to love. The world our words have attempted to classify, to control and even to despise (because they could not contain it) comes close to us, for silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it.
3. SOLITUDE IN THE CITY, anonymous Desert Father (5th century), from Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Amma Matrona said, “There are many in the mountains [in solitude] who behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is better to have many people around you and to live the solitary life in your will than to be alone and always longing to be in a crowd.”
4. COMPANY WITH GOD, William of St. Thierry (Benedictine, ~1077-1148), from The Golden Epistle. The man who has God with him is never less alone than when he is alone.
5. THE NOISE AMONG OTHERS, Thomas à Kempis (Brethren of the Common Life, ~1380-1471), from The Imitation of Christ. The greatest saints guarded their time alone and chose to serve God in solitude. Someone has said, “As often as I went out among men, I returned less of a man.” We often experience this when we have spent a long time in idle chatter. It is easier to be completely silent than not to be long-winded; it is easier to stay at home than to be properly on guard outside the monastery. A person whose goal is the inward, spiritual life must cast his lot with Jesus and not follow the crowd.
6. WHAT ONE MAY FIND IN SOLITUDE, Guigo I (Carthusian, d. 1136), from Carthusian Customs. Jacob, having sent ahead everything over the ford of Jaboc, remained alone and saw God face-to-face (Gen. 32.23-30). He was rewarded by a blessing and by a change of name [and by a lifelong limp! -pw]. He gained more in one moment alone than a whole lifetime in the company of others.
7. THE NEED FOR BALANCE, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran, 1906-1945), from Life Together. Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… let him who is not in community beware of being alone… each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.
8. THE PORTABILITY OF SOLITUDE, Richard Foster (Quaker), from Celebration of Discipline (1978). Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times. Crowds, or the lack of them, have little to do with this inward attentiveness. It is quite possible to be a desert hermit and never experience solitude. But if we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.
9. EACH OF US HAS BEEN ALONE WITH GOD OUR WHOLE LIVES, Thomas Merton (Cistercian, 1915-1968), from No Man is an Island. Secrecy and solitude are values that belong to the very essence of personality. A person is a person insofar as he has a secret and is a solitude of his own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. If I love a person, I will love that which makes him most a person: the secrecy, the hiddenness, the solitude of his own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. A love that breaks into the spiritual privacy of another in order to lay open all his secrets and besiege his solitude with importunity does not love him; it seeks to destroy what is best in him, and what is most intimately his… If I cannot distinguish myself from the mass of other men, I will never be able to love and respect other men as I ought. If I do not separate myself from them enough to know what is mine and what is theirs, I will never discover what I have to give them, and never allow them the opportunity to give me what they ought.
10. THE INNER AND OUTER LIVES, Meister Eckhart (Dominican, ~1260-1327), from On Detachment. Now you must know that the outer man may be active while the inner man remains wholly free and immovable.
11. ON LIMITS, Marie of the Incarnation (Carmelite, 1566-1618), from The Relation of 1654. There is no limit to the interior life.
It’s Ash Wednesday, and I’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska lately. Which is appropriate, IMO.
I was a DJ at my college radio station in the late 1980′s. We played R.E.M. and the Smiths and the Silos and Jane’s Addiction. As the vinyl spun we’d sit in the studio and talk music. On many points we were, as a group, in full agreement: Talking Heads’ Little Creatures was a masterpiece; R.E.M. was better when you couldn’t understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics; the world needed more Replacements and less Lionel Richie; Kevn Kinney’s red Mosrite was badass.
But when it came to Springsteen, I was alone. This was, you must know, during the years just following the galactic-scale commercial success of Born in the U.S.A. It had been four or five solid years that you could not turn on the radio without hearing the title track, or “Cover Me,” or “Darlington County,” or “Dancing in the Dark.” Never mind that Tunnel of Love, a distinctly low-key and introspective album, had been released in the midst of those years. My friends at WPLS would have none of it. The Boss was Way Commercial. Which meant he was Way Not Cool.
I would not be moved. As a freshman at Young Harris College I had discovered Nebraska. Maybe it was the confluence of that music and that place, but Nebraska made me a Springsteen fan for life. Here was music that was intimate, astute, haunting, and pessimistic (in the best philosophical sense). It was sensitive yet extremely hard-edged. It resonated with my loneliness in a way that made me feel less, well, lonely.
The thing is, Nebraska made such an impression on me that to this day I can’t listen to any Springsteen song without hearing Nebraska pushing its way up through the drums and guitars. Even let’s-get-it-on party songs like “Pink Cadillac” and drenched-in-hope rockers like “What Love Can Do” carry for me, somewhere near their centers, the frustration so evident in “Used Cars,” the biting irony of “Reason to Believe,” or the stark loss of “My Father’s House.” This is why I defended Born in the U.S.A. at the radio station, but I didn’t (couldn’t?) articulate this at the time.
But with Nebraska the note of loss is exposed, naked really. There’s no hiding it. It’s right there. It can be hard to listen to at times, but other times not so much.
This all fits because Ash Wednesday is that day of the Christian year when nakedness is on the agenda. It’s about taking the varnish off, as a pastor friend of mine used to say. No fig leaves, no disguises, no distractions. It’s the season in which we’re called to consider the terrible truth of our lives. It’s when we are called to acknowledge, in the words of “Atlantic City,” that “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.”
Nebraska helps me remember that as Christians, our number one job is to die. That’s all we have to do, really, in a hundred different ways. And faith, I suppose, is trusting God to do the rest.
Hellraiser: The Breakfast Club‘s John Bender, played by Jud Nelson
Note: This is a reworked version of a post published back in 2011. If all goes well, this version will be showing up at Huffpost later this week.
A few posts ago I discussed the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit. This is the idea, held by some atheists, that humanity is growing up from an infancy characterized by belief in God. Under this conceit the God fantasy must be sloughed off because it is untrue and unhelpful. Reason and empirical science have now emerged as the only principles worthy of a fully awake and grown-up humanity. The giving-up of religion and the full embrace of reason is the trading of a childish dream for reality. It is a happy signpost along the way to humanity’s majority.
So goes the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit.
I believe this idea is no more than a convenient fiction, but I’m not interested in attacking it directly (others have done that already). Instead I’d like to simply propose an off-the-cuff alternative model. It is at least as plausible as the Goat Herder. My point is not that this alternative is right and the Goat Herder is wrong. Instead, I wish to say only that it’s easy to manufacture interpretations of history that seem compelling, especially to those who already believe them.
Like the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit, my model is based on the theme of growing up. I call it the “Breakfast Club Conceit.”
The Breakfast Club, for those who don’t know, is a movie by John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Home Alone; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). It was released in 1985 and chronicles one day in the life of five teenagers. Each hails from a different clique — Brian’s a geek, Allison’s a recluse, Claire’s a princess, Andrew’s a jock, John’s a rebel — and they spend a long Saturday in detention, cloistered in their school’s library. They laugh, cry, make out, dance, smoke dope, and talk. They talk a lot. They talk about their different social scenes, they talk about their friends, they talk about their parents, they talk about themselves, they talk about each other.
None of them trust the way they were brought up, and all of them end up trusting each other. Two points stand out: (1) their new social worlds, in sharp contrast to the worlds of their parents, are utterly absorbing to them; and (2) their parents’ values — that is, their own values up to roughly the date of their detention — are questioned and, in the end, judged to be inadequate to the realities of their lives.
What we see in The Breakfast Club is a well-documented piece of psychology: Once a human being learns a new intellectual or social skill, it has a way of rearranging the mental furniture. The new arrangement is centered on the new skill. Old arrangements and skills are devalued. And the new skills, for perfectly valid developmental reasons, are actually overused. It is necessary to overuse them, to test them and to find their limits.
We see the awakening of social skills in The Breakfast Club. In the clear light of a new understanding, life under parental and institutional standards appears dopey and restricting and just plain wrong. And, as the film shows, it feels really good to push the new skills. Kind of like freedom, kind of like release, kind of like growing up. Plus it’s fun, like rearranging your living room around a new sofa.
So what I’m thinking is, maybe religion is like what our parents taught us when we were kids. And science, only a few hundred years old and still growing, provides an exciting new understanding by which our religious upbringing may be judged. But perhaps in our exuberance — look, we can do the physics and predict an eclipse and build a bomb! we can vaccinate for polio and sequence our genes! — science gets overvalued. Perhaps in our search for its limits we overemphasize it.
Indeed, why worry over outdated metaphysics and ancient rules when we can clone sheep? When there’s stuff to learn? When the final frontier awaits? Why hang out with Mom and Dad at home when there’s a football game, and pizza, and a party? And a road trip to the beach in the morning?
But if this is the way things are, then it’s wrong to say that science is good and religion is bad. After all, there is no more evidence to say that religion is a useless and hurtful artifact of our past that must be jettisoned wholesale than there is to say that everything Claire Standish‘s parents ever told her was a flat-out deception.
Plus, when Claire hits adulthood she may be surprised to hear her parents’ words coming out of her mouth. And what may be most surprising is the discovery that she means what she says.
So under the Breakfast Club Conceit, science is a relatively new and powerful skill, like a teen’s social awareness, that has come to dominate part of humanity’s consciousness. And like the teen’s overused social skills, empirical science will one day be seen as just one important tool among others. And those atheists who want to rid the world of religion altogether are like hellraising kids who, for very good reasons, want to just forget everything their parents ever said or did.
Hellraisers notwithstanding, we will eventually come to see our religious and scientific lives come into balance, just as teenagers eventually grow up and learn to balance the dual influences of authority and peers, of restraint and exuberance.
I could work this idea harder, and it might be fun. But frankly I don’t care if the Breakfast Club Conceit is right or wrong.* Why? Because my point is broader and more modest: The Breakfast Club, like the Goat Herder, goes down easy if you basically believe it already. Heck, I’m starting to warm to it myself.
Anyone can come up with an idea and sell it. And if it fits some group’s preconceptions, or if it serves their political or (a)theological agenda then there will be no push by anyone in that group to question it. And then you might end up with a lot of people believing a lot of nonsense. Which, truth be told, is not a phenomenon unique to religion.
*I do in fact think that the Breakfast Club has more insight to offer than the Goat Herder. But it has problems. One is that it characterizes religion as conservative and authority-based and science as iconoclastic and intellectually liberating. Both statements are partly true but are taken by themselves misleading about both religion and science.
There are more severe problems. Like the Goat Herder, the Breakfast Club suffers from one unfounded assumption: That human history should be understood in terms of an individual’s development, and, even more problematic, that it should be described in terms of progress at all.
Pia Stern, The Improbable Duality of Being, 2012. Used with permission of the artist
Twice in my life I’ve had the experience of learning something I already knew. But that’s not quite right, of course. What I mean is, twice I’ve encountered subjects that were truly new but felt old. In both cases I had no idea I had ever thought about these things in any way, but the strong shocks of recognition indicated otherwise: “I’ve been thinking this way my whole life!”
The first time was when I took physics as a college sophomore. I had wondered about motion a lot as a kid and teenager but never realized that motion is what I had thought about. So learning physics was like putting on a pair of shoes that were somehow worn and soft in all the right places, like I had been wearing them for years. Yet they were new. It was a happy discovery and it was fun to go through college and graduate school learning to look at the natural, exterior world as a physicist. As a teacher I’m still learning how to do this and it’s still fun.
The second time came much later, as a 40-year-old in seminary. This is when I read the Christian mystics for the first time. And I am completely serious when I say it was not fun but frightening and ultimately liberating. It was like these people — Denys, Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete, Nicholas of Cusa, all of whom lived centuries ago — knew me. I had read Thomas Merton and he had gone deep but these folks shot straight into the most interior and central part of me and laid bare all the stuff I could not verbalize. They showed me that God is not only about reality but also — and just as fundamentally — about identity.
So these are the two utterly real poles of my life: the reproducible and the poetic; the exterior and the interior; the immanent and the transcendent; the dynamic and the eternal. The apparent incongruity sometimes leads me to despair and look for ways to resolve the paradox and get on to another subject. But taken together science and theology produce a tension that I’m not sure should be gone. It reminds me of something I read lately about heresies: they have almost always been rooted in a desire to resolve and flatten a necessary paradox, e.g., the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Borrowing from Zen, for me science and theology work together kind of like a koan, a paradoxical question or image used to encourage doubt and humility on the way to enlightenment. Koans are designed to push the student beyond what he knows and in the end to relativize what he once had been pleased to call knowledge.
In this way, science and theology — taken together — move me right out to the boundary of everything I don’t know and even push me a little over that line. And while my drive to resolve the paradox is an expression of a good desire for rational coherence, I think it’s ultimately for me a temptation to retreat to safer and better-mapped territory. There are few enticements stronger than security, intellectual and otherwise.
But I’m out here now, and I think I’ll stay a little longer.
Maurice Sendak died on 8 May 2012. Thanks to Arni at I Think I Believe for bringing this to my attention
“To those who consider themselves on the safe side of belief, [Simone Weil] teaches the uncomfortable truth that the unbelief of many atheists is closer to a true love of God and a true sense of his nature, than the kind of easy faith which, never having experienced God, hangs a label bearing his name on some childish fantasy or projection of the ego.”
–Leslie Fielder, from his introduction to Simone Weil’s Waiting for God
My favorite goat herder: the constellation Auriga, copyright Sergey Mikhaylov. Auriga is usually called the Charioteer, but he’s almost always pictured as a goatherd on celestial maps. For those of us at mid-northern latitudes, he’s high overhead for most of these long winter nights. Image source: Bigstock
Note: This is a reworked version of a post published back in 2011. If all goes well, this version will be showing up at Huffpost later this week.
Imagine we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would even embarrass a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is the center of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.
There are two explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago — while our knowledge on all other fronts was still hopelessly inchoate — or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.
Thus writes Sam Harris in his 2004 book The End of Faith. This passage shows up in a section about religious peoples’ insistence on clinging to tradition. The idea being, only in religion would the thoughts of a fourteenth-century person still be considered authoritative.
Harris’ words are indicative of a profoundly anti-intellectual conceit that holds an alarming amount of influence within contemporary scientifically-motivated atheism. In his 2009 book The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins used the disparaging phrase “Bronze Age desert tribesmen” to describe the source of and intended audience for the biblical book of Genesis, and this phrase has been transformed in the mouths of lesser atheists into “Bronze Age goat herders.” As in, “The Bible was written by a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders” (lifted from the JREF forum).
What’s so wrong with goat herders, I don’t know.
Harris mentions neither the Bronze Age nor goats, but it does not matter. He demonstrates the selfsame conceit.
The conceit probably originated with with Kant but has since fallen far. Its contemporary expression might go like this: Way back a long time ago we weren’t so hot at science. We were babies then, so in the face of an unpredictable world we clung to our religion like mama’s skirt. Now we’re growing up and must put away childish things: all religion must go.
Zooming out: We are at a critical point in history, and the sooner we slough off the old religious crap the sooner we’ll be able to get on with the business of saving ourselves. Because “God” is clearly not going to do it.
So on one hand we have our Bronze Age goat herders; on the other, our contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. What came between these endpoints of intellectual evolution? I mean, besides our medieval ignoramus?
Sir William Herschel, that’s who. He was the greatest astronomer of his time, which was approximately the late 18th-early 19th centuries. He discovered Uranus (make up your own jokes) and infrared radiation, discovered that coral was an animal and not a plant, discovered a couple moons of Saturn and Uranus, was the first to realize that the Solar System is moving as a unit through space, and coined the term “asteroid.” Plus: He’s the namesake of the big crater on Mimas, the “Death Star” moon of Saturn. Most importantly, though, Herschel is largely responsible for introducing the concept of evolutionary change over long time scales into astronomy. He was a real scientist with a lot going on.
But he wasn’t free of the old God baloney. In fact, he was plumb full of crazy religious-y ideas, like what we call today “cosmic pluralism.” This is the belief that there is lots of intelligent life out among the far-off twinkly lights. Some people believe this on semi-scientific grounds today, but Herschel’s arguments were not scientific at all. Instead, they were based on analogy and a belief in a God of abundance who would not waste perfectly good worlds.
Alasdair Wilkins published a nice piece some time ago at io9. Entitled “Cosmic Pluralism: How Christianity Briefly Conquered the Solar System,” it addresses Herschel’s belief that outer space is a full house. Wilkins writes:
By the 1700s, there could no longer be any doubt. Earth was just one of many worlds orbiting the Sun, which forced scientists and theologians alike to ponder a tricky question. Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?
To many thinkers, the answer was an emphatic “no,” and so cosmic pluralism – the idea that every world is inhabited, often including the Sun – was born. And this was no fringe theory. Many of the preeminent astronomers of the 18th and 19th century, including Uranus discoverer Sir William Herschel, believed in it wholeheartedly.
So under the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit, Herschel lived at a time just before the smart people came to disbelieve in everything but science. We had not yet seen clear through our biblical fairly tales, but we were undoubtedly approaching our majority.
We now have four points on a curve: (1) The Bronze Age infants who wrote the fairy tales for the goat herders in the first place; (2) our educated but unenlightened medieval fairy-tale expert; (3) the almost-grown-up but still somewhat silly Herschel, and (4) our brightest and most clear-thinking contemporary persons, who are of course all atheists.
It’s too simple to be wrong.
(Click on image for a large version.)
When you look at it like this, you don’t have to do any work; the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit simply saunters into your mind and sets up house. It is self-evident. One is compelled to ask, How could the world be otherwise?
Which is the point. The Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit is anti-intellectual, yes, but is it wrong? I think so, but for my present purpose it doesn’t matter. The point I’m working towards is that, right or wrong, any theory goes down nice and easy if (1) you want to believe it, and (2) you’re not interested in doing your homework.
Next up: I will complete this article by suggesting an off-the-cuff and just-as-believable theory to compete with the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit. I was going to propose it in this post but I got a little carried away with the chart.
I for one am glad to see the calendar change. When I was younger I was indifferent to the changing years, but here at midlife I have come to experience, despite all the cynicism I can muster, which is a lot, a kind of strange hope when 1 January rolls around.
My hope for 2013 is twofold: fewer distractions and a more deliberate life.
My search for stable employment continues. My approach in 2012 was to push hard on every door and wait breathlessly to see what would happen. When nothing did I’d push again and again hold my breath. A few cycles like this exhausted me. My professional expectations have been nothing but anxiety-provoking and they have diverted my attention from actual life, which holds for no one.
Case in point: In September my dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma. He has gone through chemotherapy continuously since then. Later this month he will undergo a stem cell transplant. His prognosis is good, but this is a major procedure. Its effects on his immune system will be severe and will last for months.
All this has left me a bit unhinged.
But there’s truth in the cliché that crises can wake us up. These circumstances and others have led me to conclude that too much of my life has been centered on trivia. My constant tracking of certain news-blog-Facebook-tweet cycles is just one of several examples I might mention. It’s on my laptop, my office computer, the iPad, my phone, my TV. It’s hyperactive and nonstop. And it goes exactly nowhere. Over the last few months I’ve become aware of how badly FOMO (fear of missing out) has jangled my nerves. It has left me unable to pay attention to any one idea, and to any one person.
So this year I hope to relearn how to pay attention.
Perhaps that’s why I have recently re-read a certain pair of short books: Isaac Newton by James Gleick and Waiting for God by Simone Weil. Newton and Weil make an interesting pair: One a genius of science, the other of the spirit. You would want neither at your dinner party: Newton wouldn’t say a word — in fact, he would probably hide somewhere — and Weil would spend the evening matter-of-factly challenging everyone’s assumptions about everything (not out of a desire to upset people; it’s who she was). Neither sought fame: Newton was only pulled out of his shell by larger circumstances and Weil was an unknown quantity until shortly after her death in 1943. They focused on different aspects of reality: Newton on mathematics and the mystery of motion; Weil on the lives and sufferings of her fellows.
But they focused, and that’s the point. They had the capacity to filter out noise and pay attention.
Newton would pay attention to a single idea for long periods of time: days, weeks, months, years. Writes Gleick,
Newton’s patience was limitless. Truth, he said much later, was the “offspring of silence and meditation.” And he said: “I keep the subject constantly before me and wait ’till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
He did one thing at a time, whether it was physics, alchemy, or theology. Whatever it was he was doing, he was attending to it.
Weil’s idea of attention is subtle and theologically oriented. She writes that paying true attention to anything — even a problem of physics, say — develops the capacity to see and know others (and God too, but that’s for another day). The idea is to hold the object of one’s attention at a (short) distance from other thoughts that threaten to crowd it out:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all, our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.
This is true whether the object of attention is a proposition in physics or a homeless man by the off-ramp.
In other words, when encountering any idea or person, I might try to resist my powerful urge to classify, contextualize, and connect: “Oh, that’s a statement of momentum conservation”; “He should get a job.” No: what I have here is that equation; what I have here is that human being. Suppress for a moment the interpretive reflex. That way I might at least see something real and keep it from being lost in the hyperactivity and nonsense that so threatens my peace of mind.
There is no promise of employment; nor do I have any control over my dad’s health. But maybe I can wake up a little.
My prayer for 2013 is that I will learn to think and act deliberately; that is, with attention. This means saying no: not reaching for my phone to assuage my anxiety, not spending time reading blogs and news sites that only frustrate me, not googling when I could just wonder, not fantasizing about professional “success.”
The truth is, my family and I have a promising year ahead of us. We have lots of new challenges and opportunities. And I’m grateful for that, just as I am grateful for each of you, dear readers.