Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Right Tool

This first appeared in OutWords magazine, March, 2011.

A parable:
Once there was a man who wanted to build a house. Being a novice, he
decided to inquire with his friends what sort of tools he would need
for the job. The first friend he asked said to him, “Surely you will
need a hammer.” This seemed reasonable, and so the man bought a hammer
and set out to build his house.

But he quickly discovered that the hammer was useless for many of the
required tasks. Tossing it aside and muttering and cursing under his
breathe that his friend was no-good liar, he proceeded to the home of
a second friend. Again he asked what sort of tools he needed to build
a house. The second friend replied, “Surely you will need a saw.” The
man thought that sounded reasonable and so he purchased a saw and set
out once more to build his house.

The saw seemed a better idea, as the man could now cut his logs to
size with ease, a task that had proved impossible with the hammer.
Soon, however, the man was once again muttering and cursing as he
tried in vain to drive home a nail with the handle of the saw.
It was once widely accepted that the Church held a monopoly on
legitimate knowledge. The pursuers of science felt the constraints and
pushed against them, finally bursting them asunder. The Church was
overthrown as the possessor and distributor of knowledge, its place
taken by the Academy. But the Academy tossed out more than it could
replace. Gone was the faulty astronomy, gone the inscrutable god of
Abraham, but gone too was the wisdom, gone was the comfort.

Now we feel the constraints of the Academy, of the modern outlook. We
push up against them. We consume ever more and newer products, yet
remain unsatisfied. We accept the big-bang theory and evolution, yet
fail to find comfort in them. We find that the material sciences,
which were so useful in freeing us from the bonds of the Church, have
now fashioned for us a materialist cage. There is food and water
aplenty in the cage, but of meaning we find none. And so the human
soul revolts, it looks for an exit from this prison of cold, dead,
uncaring matter.

Having rejected the Church of our forebears along with its wisdom and
comfort, we seek these things in other churches, far away; churches we
did not grow up in, churches that never shamed us or forced us to
conform or to do violence to our intellect. We find what we look for.
We look at Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Taoism, and take from them the
wisdom and comfort that we need. We don't look to the rest, to their
faulty astronomy, their inscrutable deities. For some reason, for some
of us, it seems easier to distinguish the baby from the bath-water at
a distance.

Some in the Church will still cry "heresy!" and some in the Academy
will cry "superstition!" but the soul of humanity will go on building
itself a home. It must and it will, using whatever tools it can find.

Reflections on Discontentment

This article first appeared in OutWords magazine, February, 2011.

I cannot remember a time when I felt totally at peace with myself, totally whole, complete. If there has been one constant throughout my life it would seem to be this, the constant feeling of discontentment.
Initially, this feeling revolved almost entirely around myself. It had not yet occurred to me to blame my feelings on a disturbed and disturbing world. The only explanation I could find was that there was something wrong with me, something missing.

I'm not sure where this feeling came from. Whether it is the residue of psychological belittlement by my parents and peers, or whether it stems from something deeper I cannot say. In truth, I had to endure relatively little of the first, and though I did get my share of teasing as a child, I was not subject to the emotional and psychological abuse that many of my friends have undergone. No, it seems to be something deeper than just negative conditioning, some more fundamental emotion.

Part of this seems to stem from an acute awareness of sin, of knowingly doing wrong. I remember distinctly the first time I told a lie, and the majority of my early memories seem to be of my various trespasses as a child. I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an overly disobedient or willful child, and my hours of conformity in youth greatly outweighed my hours of revolt. And yet it is the sin that sticks. Even now, those violations of my earlier years come back to haunt me. “That,” they whisper to me,that too you are capable of.”

I have allowed myself to be persuaded, by both myself and others, to engage in things which now, with a better understanding of the world and the human psyche, I know may well have led to lasting psychological damage. Should I track these people down, apologize for my trespasses, beg their forgiveness? Probably. But even if I did and received full pardon from each, the knowledge of my sins and past actions would still hang heavy over my heart.

And they continue, of course, the sins. Mostly small, now, and unlikely to lead to any lasting damage, other than to my own psyche. Sins mostly of resentment and hostility towards others and of laziness leading to resentment and hostility toward myself. But the feeling is the same, and just as intense now as when I was a child. I have leavened it a little by turning some of my feelings of inadequacy outwards, by placing them on the world. For some of my discontentment I blame others, though the attribution may well be specious, but a good deal of it is still about me, no matter how much I try to project it onto externals.
I wonder, does everyone feel this way? Does everyone feel like there is something continually awry in their soul, something missing whose absence leaves a void that constantly sucks at their mind, drawing their thoughts again and again to that which is lacking? Wherefore this discontentment? Why do I feel this way? Why does Anybody?

Surely, the world is not ideal as humanity conceives the ideal. But it is ideal in it's imperfection, ideal in it's readiness to nurture life and growth, to provide the necessary materials for a quest for the ideal. And just as surely, we are imperfect beings, who have failed many times to live up to our highest potentials, who have slipped many times from the path of perfection that each of us, I think, feels that we should be following. But we are perfect in our ability to grow, to change. Our perfection lies not in our perfection, so to speak, but in our perpetual perfectibility.

It is always possible to change and to grow. To deny this to another is a sign of encroaching bigotry, to deny this to oneself is the grossest of self-slanders. To deny the ability to change is to deny free-will, to claim that oneself and everyone else are nothing but robots, enslaved by the whip of nature, chained by instinct and destiny.

Perhaps the discontent I feel is not about the world and not about who or what I actually am at any given moment of discontentment, but rather about a feeling that I am not growing fast enough. For life, as for all pursuits, there is a learning curve and the making of mistakes, both large and small, is not only a part of that curve, but indeed what it is composed of. Personal sin and an imperfect world are not reasons for discontentment in and of themselves: it is stasis and regression that we grind ourselves against.

Perhaps it's something like the sapling, knowing that it is a tree and is meant to be a tree, but grinding up against the reality of its sapling self. Growing so slowly, day after day, in the constant knowledge of its own inherent tree-ness. Perhaps this discontentment is merely the impatience of saplings.