Monday, September 25, 2006
The Faith of Children
This realization took me by surprise the other day. We were talking and the whole thing just came out. They explained it all to me very patiently and in great detail. God made the light and then the dry land…, . I admired their command and memory and then I tried to offer a broader, more “nuanced” narrative. I thought I had a really nice approach. I explained that sometimes reading things with our eyes and hearing things with our ears can give us an incomplete picture. I told them the parable of the blind men and the elephant. I told them that instead of using only the fingertips, eyes and ears we should try to use our inner senses too. If we open our inner eyes and ears we hear and read differently.
They looked at me as if I had two heads. “Papa”, Jesse said, “that’s just crazy”.
Even though I believe in the creation as reported in the bible, I am not, strictly speaking, a creationist. I have come to a place in my life where I can believe more than one thing- even if they seem to contradict each other. I have, as you can verify in my other posts here, found my own way of believing as many different sides of the spiritual and rational view of things as I am able to comprehend. Still, I cannot help but be pleased that my boys are so firm in their belief. I find their sturdy, passionate conviction very reassuring.
At first, I was a little bit puzzled with my own reaction. Why do I take satisfaction in my boy’s exclusive confidence in the literalist approach?
First, I think it is “age appropriate”. They are too young to make the kind of leaps of thought necessary for anything more abstract. Even so, I feel pride that they, within the limits of their ability, have found it important to hold a belief about God.
Actually, I love that.
Monday, September 11, 2006
The Stinging Things are the True Messengers
The Days of Awe are also one of the times in the year when we are encouraged to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us. It is traditional that we visit their graves during this time in order to remember and be restored by our connections of love. Those connections of love inevitably lead us back to the unfathomable presence of God.
Last year, as the High Holy Days approached, I faced a dilemma. Rosh Hashanah fell on Tuesday and Wednesday and I was very low on vacation time at work. In the three years since we adopted our boys I have had a job the gives me relatively little vacation time. I had been laid off three weeks after we came back from Ukraine with the boys and I have not been earning nearly what I was used to making before that. We have been under a lot of financial pressure. In some Jewish circles, the second day of Rosh Hashanah is considered an “optional” day but I have always taken the two. Working on the second day was a difficult decision for me but I ended up putting the money above my heart’s feeling and I only took that Tuesday off. I felt awful inside but I went to work. It was a beautiful day so I walked the three miles and worked all day.
As I walked home after work, the autumn afternoon was beginning to glow red and gold and the rustling of the dry leaves in the trees seemed to whisper in the rising breeze. I walked, deep in thought. One of the things I thought about was how I would at least be able to visit my brother’s grave on Sunday. In the middle of planning my visit to my brother’s grave I came to the slope into the park. We live at the northeast corner of the Newton Center Park. To get to our end of the park I walk past the Mason-Rice School, where my boys are now in 2nd and 3rd grade and down into the park. The school is built on the rim of a ridge of high ground that runs around the southwest edge of the park. A little further along that ridge is the place where there used to be a toboggan slide. In fact, a year or so before his death, my brother had broken his leg on that slide. I always feel his presence there.
I glanced across to the place that the toboggan slide had been from the crest of the ridge and started down the broad, paved path. There is no underbrush close to the path and because of its proximity to the elementary school, the grass around it is well beaten down. The slope is a popular place with the kids. They play games among the trees and haul fallen branches around and pile them against the trees and rocks to make “houses” and “forts” Well traveled and open as it is, it would never occur to anyone to be wary of any kind of natural hazard. Yet about half way down the slope, a squadron of yellow jackets attacked me. In an instant, I was stung three times, once on the top of my head, once one the bicep of my right arm and once on the left forearm.
As I walked the rest of the way home, part of me wanted to believe that those stings came to me randomly at that season of the year when the receding daylight, falling temperatures and increasingly scarce natural food supply make wasps, bee and hornets more aggressive and unpredictable. Another part of me felt the stings and understood them as places on my body where my conflicted emotions about not having observed the second day of Rosh Hashanah had drawn the divine presence to burn me with a “mark of Cain”. Or was it God punishing and admonishing me? All these and many more permutations swam around in my mind until the following Sunday.
Cathy and the kids came along with me to visit my brother’s grave. The cemetery has no standing stones. All the graves are marked with simple bronze plates. Each plate has a bronze vase for flowers. The vases are stored inverted in the plate. When you want to put flowers in to the vase you must first pull it out and turn it upright. Then you can place the base of it back in the plate and “twist lock” it into place.
I never bring flowers. I don’t really believe in them. I knew, however, that my 86-year-old mother and 89-year-old father were planning to visit the grave the next day. I know that my mom is upset when things are not well kept and cared for so as soon as we got there, I started tidying up. First I groomed the grass around the edges of the marker, picking up the clumps of lawn mower clippings and cropping the live grass that encroach on it. Then I went to pull the vase up so I could inspect it.. It was late in the morning on a nice, warm, bright day. As I pulled the vase up, I gasped in shock. There was a small but well populated nest of wasps attached to it. I did not know what to do. I watched as a wasp crawled across the top of the comb of the nest. The weather was warm, the temperature was in the high seventies. There is no doubt in my mind that those creatures could have flown up into my face any time they wanted to. But they didn’t, something held them back. I put the vase back down and said my memorial prayer for my brother. Then I left.
For the past year I have been fighting a battle against the “simplistic”, literal explanation for these events. I have a hard time thinking that the bites I received were a “sign”. Still between the bite I recieved that day and the ones I didn't recieve a few days later it is hard to shake the feeling that if I don't pay attention I am missing a message that couldn't have been much clearer. Readers of my weblog will know that although I am always looking for what I understand to be indications of the presence of God in this world, I am not disposed to take any of these indications of that presence personally. I would never presume to believe that I am so important that God would (even if God could) communicate directly with me. I take all those other glimpses of Divine Presence not as messages so much as brief flashes of insight that allow me to experience the awe and majesty of the intelligence that is the foundation of our universe. These two encounters are different.
I can’t explain them "consistantly" without feeling as though I am either abandoning rationality or denying a clear spiritual message. I am forced to choose to believe both simultaneously in order to avoid killing whatever it is inside me that believes them. I comfort myself in the thought that, as I was taught by the cat and the hornet (see God the Cat and Me), what looks to us like reality is only a one-dimensional shadow of what God is all about.
It is a Jewish tradition that we eat honey and apples at this time of year. The apples- because they are sweet and in season; and because they are round. The roundness is a symbol of the cycle of the year, which begins anew every Rosh Hashanah and then grows old- only to be renewed again. The honey is eaten to help us wish for a sweet new year but also to remind us that the sweetness never comes without the sting of the bee who made it. It is always the sting in life that gives the sweetness it's meaning.
As Rosh Hashana approaches this year I can tell you that since last fall I have, in general, tried to be more careful about being in the right place and doing the right thing. Also, I will definitely observe both days of Rosh Hashanah this year. Have a sweet year!
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Between Belief and Knowledge
Knowing is not understanding. There is a great difference between knowing and
understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand it.
Charles F. Kettering
I came to know about Charles Franklin Kettering from a late night radio show that found me sitting in a scientific laboratory at Harvard University's School of Public Health. At the time I was the weekend supervisor of the Monkey Nursery there and worked from noon to midnight every Saturday and Sunday. I had dropped out of college in my junior year and had spent a few years working as an actor and a carpenter before I found this job which I took initially because it interested me and would allow me copious free time during the week. It soon inspired me to return to school and pursue a degree in Anthropology.
I was in charge of the infant monkey nursery, surrounded by rooms full of baby monkeys. There were certain times during my twelve-hour shift when I would have some free time to study, listen to the radio or read. On Sunday night there was a radio show produced at Wayne State University in Detroit and re-broadcast by one of the Boston area college stations that I always checked in with to see what was on. There were only a dozen or so programs in the series and they would repeat them over and over to fill the time slot. Nine of the programs were pretty standard educational fare and I don't remember them at all. The other three changed my life in a fundamental way.
These were actually antique recordings of an address that Kettering had given at some commemoration or dedication ceremony toward the end of his career. He was then one of the few surviving members of a group of entrepreneurs and inventors that changed life for all of humanity in the latter part of the industrial revolution. Here was a man who was responsible for the electric cash register, the diesel locomotive engine, the electric starter for the automobile, safety glass and probably the most profoundly influential of them all, the discovery of Freon gas for refrigeration and air-conditioning. This great technologist spoke mostly not of moving industry and wielding power but of making people's mind grow by paying attention to their hearts.
He told the story of his first professional job as a recent college graduate. He was schoolmaster in a turn-of-the-century one room school house. One of his youngest pupils was a first grader who had already had a difficult experience in school. Although she was obviously bright and could already read at a high level for her age, she could only do it with the book held upside down. Her previous teacher had insisted that she learn to read the "right way" and refused to let her read upside down. Luckily she kept reading and only learned to hate the teacher.
When Kettering came on the scene he sized the situation up in much the same way he approached all of the other problems that he solved in mechanics. chemistry and electronics. First he understood the whole problem. It turned out that the little girl had spent many hours with her grandmother who was unable to hold the little girl on her lap and read to her in a more standard way so she would read to her by placing a book on a stool in between two chairs that faced each other and would read to her as the girl looked on upside down. Kettering knew from this that the girl was smart and motivated and could adapt to any condition. He hit on a plan that worked perfectly with no emotional damage or condemnation of the child. He merely borrowed a music stand from someone in the community and placed her book upside down in front of her. Since when a book is mounted upside down this way, it is 180 degrees out of the usual reading position. Kettering then turned the music stand's music holder 5 degrees clockwise every Monday during the school year. As the year progressed, the girl found herself reading at 175 degrees out of the usual then 170 then 165 etc... By the end of the year she was reading just the way everyone else was and Kettering had done it without making her feel as though she was different, strange or wrong. He honored her as an individual at the same time he was correcting her because he followed his own admonition to understand the the problem deeply enough that the solution became obvious. This was an example, he said, of "letting the problem be the boss".
The trouble that most people get into when they run into a problem they have never experienced before, he explained was they immediately try to fit it into what they know. The more educated and expert the person the greater is that tendency. Kettering advanced the idea that true solutions to problems come not from trying to fit every question to the answers you already know but from meeting the problem on its own ground and letting it teach you what you need to know to understand it and solve it. Once, Kettering said, you let the problem be the boss and do not try to bend it to fit your small view of the world, you begin to grow in power and ability.
I was captivated listening to Kettering talk because he had clarity of expression that perfectly reflected the genius of his insight. He made you feel as though his understanding was your understanding. Somehow I felt that this very practical man was so clear and so pragmatic that he paradoxically was talking in a perfectly spiritual and transcendent way about these quintessentially down to earth matters. He offered a glimpse into the core of our relationship with the real world and because of this he was seeing too into very fiber of the order of the universe.
I looked forward to these programs and must have heard each one of them a half dozen times. I read as much as I could find about Kettering in the library too. I took him and his philosophies to heart and he became one of my life's heroes.
He was also an anti-authoritarian of the purest kind. Another story he told was about another speech he had given before an august assembly of academics. They had gathered to honor Kettering, Edison and a few other of the great inventors of that time. Kettering told how he had gotten up and explained to the academics that the kind of education they prized and awarded advanced degrees to was the antithesis of the kind of training that wqs needed to produce more innovators like the ones gathered there for honors. He related how his group of engineers had been struggling to find the right gas to serve as a refrigerant for a cooling system that GM had commissioned him to develop. They worked by their own methods for some time time with little success. Then Kettering took things into his own hands and told them to pack their things for a working retreat. Once there, he had them draw a graph of all the molecular formulae they had tried so far on the wall. The graph included the composition and the refrigerant properties of each gas. As they filled in the graph, it became apparent that there was one spot where all the properties of the other molecules seemed to converge to point toward the most efficient refrigerant. Kettering pointed this spot out and was immediately told by one of his sliderule wielding engineers that they had suspected that there was a molecule that would fit there for some time but that they had not tried to produce it because according to their calculations, the characteristics of the molecule would be unstable and unusable. Kettering insisted that they try it anyway and Freon gas was discovered. Freon served for many decades as the best refrigerant known. It made possible food preservation and shipping as we know it as well as air-conditioning and many medical and scientific research techniques that have saved and enriched un counted lives.
Kettering would often call meetings at which slide rules were strictly forbidden. He insisted on re-training all engineers with advanced degrees who came to work for him. He did this because he was the all-time professor of considering every possibility. He considered advanced degrees to be the warning signs of mental deficiency. After all, time after time, PhDs and engineers with advanced degrees had looked at his projects "logically" and told him that the things he proposed were "impossible". To Kettering, "Logic is a system whereby one may go wrong with confidence."
Kettering spent his life astride the no man's land between belief and knowledge. There is a prejudice today that knowledge and belief are mutually exclusive. He knew that they were much more powerful in combination and that the truth of things can most nearly be approached by using them together.
By far the most lasting and powerful thing I learned from those old lectures of Kettering's was his ability to acknowledge mystery and unpredictability while still having faith in an orderly and lawful universe. He, as did Newton and Einstein, knew that there was more to this Universe than any human can understand. His approach to problems was to learn what they had to teach him until they became solutions. As Kettering put it in his plain and firm way, "It is not what we know that is important, it is what we do not know."”
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
We live day to day bathed in that radiation. It is something I find reassuring and even inspiring. To me it is a sign that the creation of the universe is always with us. I take it as another of the myriad ways that the Divine Presence reveals itself in the world we that we can see. I don’t make a distinction between the “Big Bang” of scientific explanation and the creative power of the divine presence because I am very sure that I lack the intellectual power to make that distinction and I have faith that they are at some level identical. They are both part of what I think of as God. So this is a warm and comforting concept for me.
I t also sometimes happens that in the event of personal cataclysms (the loss of a loved one, the shattering of one’s health) the peson who’s life is transformed radiates an energy that becomes papable to others around them. I often think it is a mercy we don’t have bigger antennae ourselves. What would it be like it we could feel all those radiations from every person we meet?
Every once in a while I am overwhelmed by the sense that a person I have just come in contact with has so recently suffered a “Big Bang” in their own life and is still so wounded that I want to try to reach out to them and let them know that I understand what they are feeling.
Not long ago a well-dressed woman of about seventy came into the plumbing showroom where I work. As soon as I saw her I knew she would be a test for me. She looked distraught, unfocussed and tired. She started by telling me was that her husband had died a month before and she wanted to fix up her house and sell it. She wanted me to show her plumbing fixtures for a bathroom that she felt needed renovation before she could sell the house. She kept talking. She told me that her daughter had told her that she shouldn’t rush to sell the house but she was determined. She didn’t want the responsibility. She also said that her husband had mentioned that he had wanted to take care of the bathroom before he died but he had slipped away too fast.
I felt her pain as an assault. I wanted to share her story with her and hold her hand and look into her eyes and tell her I understood. At the same time, she was in my “professional space” and that was forcing me to consider what I was there (and getting paid) for. Knowing I couldn’t break my professional role and knowing also that the last thing in the world she wanted at that point was for me to puncture her “functioning” attitude was overcome by a feeling of despair. All I wanted was to find a way to excuse myself and ask another sales person to help her.
This was not possible, so I mustered my most professional demeanor and I told her I was very sorry for her loss. I asked her if she had hada contractor to look at the bathroom yet. “Is that what I should have done?” she asked, becoming more agitated. Her husband had always taken care of those things, she told me. I looked at her and my heart went out to her. I didn’t know what to do for her. She fluttered around the showroom like a trapped bird asking questions about random displays that she came across. At one point she asked me if I had any recommendation for a contractor to do the renovation. By company policy I am not allowed to give out referrals but I felt as though I should think about making an exception in this case. On one hand, I thought, “Maybe her daughter is right- maybe she is trying to do this too early. Maybe she was just trying to escape her feelings of loss.” In the end I did give her the name of one of the best contractors I know just because I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent her from being taken advantage by a contractor without integrity.
As I wrote the name of the contractor on the back of one of my business cards I found myself hoping for her that this bathroom was her “new baby”. Maybe finishing the bathroom her husband wanted to take care of was, in a way, her "little pile of seeds" for him. She took the contractor’s name and left and I haven’t seen her again. It’s been several weeks. I find myself wondering where she is and whether I could have helped her more. What could I have done differently? One thing is for sure; I didn’t need an antenna as big as two football fields to pick up her signal. The echoes of it haunt me every time I think of her.
Everything below this point Was added on 8/9/06
Iwas so disturbed by this encounter that I also posted it on a grief and mourning web site that I sometimes turn to. I got a reply telling me that next time I might ask the person if they wanted to talk and give them my phone number.
A few days later I woke up in the morning thinking about something I had not thought about in at least thirty years. How fortunate it is that we can sometimes “forget” the most damaging incidents in our lives until we are ready to deal with them- and what a jolt it is when we have to face them again. There I was, in the yellow, humid morning light of a sweltering summer dawn, with my eyes wide open remembering a cold winter night about seven months after my brother’s death.
I was nine years old. That day, my teacher had sent a note home to my parents informing them that I was not turning in my homework assignments. My Mom and Dad were not pleased. Dinnertime that night was an unpleasant discussion of the problem ending with a promise from me to get my homework done and pass it in on time. After supper I marched to my room and tried to force myself to sit down at my desk and concentrate on two pages of long division. I worked the first couple of problems and paused before I tackled the third one. I can still remember the feeling I had. It was somewhere between dread and frustration. As I stared at the next problem, the numbers ceased to have any meaning. A tingling paralysis spread from the nape of my neck along the back of my shoulders and down my arms. The harder I tried, the more paralyzed I became. I simply could not focus my mind on doing the problems. It wasn’t that I was distracted by anything else in the room, I just couldn’t concentrate on the work; and it was work I desperately wanted to do. I don’t know how long I sat and struggled with myself but I do remember finally getting so frustrated and scared that I tried slapping myself quite hard in the face to try to force my self to continue with the work. I slapped my self several times before giving up and distracting myself with other things.
As I said, I have not thought about that critical night in many years even though it has had a seminal influence on the rest of my life. That was the night that I was defeated by what I am only now realizing was a classic symptom of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, PTSD was not recognized back then and there were no grief counselors so I was on my own in the fight. Unable to do the work, I had little choice but to begin a campaign of evasive, rebellious and diversionary behavior that would poison the rest of my elementary and secondary years of school. I was labeled with Attention Deficit Disorder (They called it Hyperactive Child Syndrome back then) and written off as a hard case by the time I hit 8th grade. Five years after that I graduated from high school with a grade point average in the bottom fifth of my class even though my scores on intelligence tests and the college boards were among the top ten in the school. The reason for my poor academic performance was simple- failure to produce and pass in homework. It wasn’t until my third year in college (I only got in on the strength of my test scores) that I found strategies that allowed me to do homework at a level that even resembled my true potential.
This is why meeting that lady was so particularly painful to me- why I can’t get her out of my mind. Meeting her triggered my own re-encounter with symptoms of PTSD that I had found ways to suppress decades ago. She had given me a new, if painful, window on problems that had dogged me for many years. Until I began my recovery in earnest in College, I had had a problem meeting the demands of everyday life with openness and enthusiasm. I often entrenched myself in reluctance and rebellion when demands were made on me. It caused a lot of pain and wasted time in my life until I found my own ways to counteract it. At least now I understand why.
Then, several days later, another woman came in. As I was showing her some kitchen faucets, she mentioned that her husband had passed away two years ago and that she missed his participation in those kinds of decisions. During the faucet conversation she brought her husband’s death up again a couple of times and I was sympathetic but professionally non-committal at first. But I found myself feeling that this was a test and that I should try not to fail it- that it was not an accident that I was having this conversation with this person.
To make the whole thing more complicated, this woman is younger and very attractive. I am happily married and know better than to create even the hint that I might be interested in any kind of "personal" relationship with a young, attractive woman. Not that I think that she would ever have thought of me that way, I just love and respect my wife too much to ever risk any kind of misunderstanding by outside observers.
Anyway, as she was buying a faucet from me, I quietly told her I was sorry about her husband. She smiled and thanked me. I could see that she wanted to talk more about it so I smiled too and told her that I knew how difficult “these things” can be. She shared with me the story of how her husband died and the sad sweetness and transparency of her memory of him came through the story like a ray of sunlight slicing through a thunderhead.
I had, suddenly, found myself listening to a love ballad like the old time ballads about star-crossed lovers. She shared other aspects of her story too, how her father had died when she was 15 and how her mother’s father had died she was very young. I don’t know how many times she has talked about these things but they came out in a quiet torrent- a lovely torrent but a torrent nevertheless, As she left, I wrote the address of my blog on the back of my card. Now I wish that I had told her that she reminded me of the title story on the blog site.
Paul Simon's song Allergies came to my mind as she picked up her faucet and got up to go:
From what I can see of the people like me
We get better
But we never get well
She thanked me ( I guess for listening) and I thanked her (for allowing me to help and for helping me to break a little further out of my old protective shell). I don’t think she has visited the web site yet but that’s all right too. I just hope she's better.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
How to be a Hero Even When Your Heart is Broken
My mother and father are the great personal heroes and example in my life. As bereft as I was as a nine-year-old- finding my brother’s body in our basement, I can now see that their devastation as his parents was a more crushing blow. Ironically, I spent the next forty years of my life looking for answers to puzzles that my Mom and Dad were solving right in front of me. (Oh well, each of us has to follow our own path to its end.) Their strength and vitality carried them through. In a way that mirrored the primordial will to serve the divine presence in their lives that impelled Adam and Eve to answer Abel’s death by having a third child, Seth. My parents responded to my brother’s death by having another child. My kid brother Arthur, was born just a year later. By this and many other acts of generous faith they refused to be tragic. They are now 90 and 87 years old respectively, and enjoying a sweet and beloved old age.
That is not to say that my parents ever forgot that they lost a thirteen-year-old son. Nearly fifty years later they still think of him countless times a day. In many ways the pain is still as fresh as it was the day he died. They live on Cape Cod, an hour and a half away and it’s sometimes not possible for us to see them more than a couple of times a month. This has been a good month and we’ve seen them three times already with a week and a half left to go. I treasure the time that I can spend with them. On our last visit, Dad and I were having a quiet talk when he said something that had me worried for a moment. He told me that he has never been afraid of dying since that horrible day because in the back of his mind there is the possibility that when he dies he might be able to see my brother again. When I looked at him for reassurance that he was not throwing in the towel on life, he smiled and I understood for the first time precisely what makes my father a real hero in the classic sense.
He has, as he said, never been afraid of dying but he has also always had the courage and strength to go on living. Not just existing either, he has given his best- every day of his life. He loves to tell jokes and never offends anyone. His greatest joy is other people, especially his family. His crowning distinction, though, is the quiet, dignified strength with which he is thankful for what he has, and preserves it with his love. To me, his openness to all of life, his sense of humor and his enthusiasm for the struggle epitomize the wisdom that can come from “the house of mourning”(see: A Little Pile of Seeds above). He is the living embodiment of my favorite lines in Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) “Go, eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine in joy, for your action was long ago approved by God… Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun- all your fleeting days…. Whatever it is in your power to do, do it with all your might. For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol, where you are going." Ecclesiastes 9:7-11
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Here is my post:
I’m new to this forum. I've been lurking here for about a week. I have been nonplussed by (among others) the thread “A Few Things Theists (Mostly Christians) Need To Clear Up!” The very essence of theism, in my opinion, is the willingness to admit that it is not possible for a human being to know everything about the universe. Since God, in the view of this theist, is what the Universe is about, asking me for hard, simple definitions puts me in a position of having to define what my first principal says I cannot define. This becomes an impasse that admits of no useful debate. I suggest that the only way to understand what you can’t understand is to experience it. If this sounds like an anti-intellectual cop out, consider the pedigree of the idea.
It is a fact that, in the natural history of the individual human intellect, the greater the genius (I’m talking here about more than IQ points- I am referring to intellects that saw through the accepted science of their day and helped bring about the world we live in today) the more keenly that person felt the the limits of human knowledge. Isaac Newton once likened his scientific and mathematical achievements to: “…a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Hold on now, having used this quote from Newton, I have no doubt some of you on this forum will be fairly leaping out of your jodhpurs to point out that simply because Newton believed that the Universe was that much greater than his ability to comprehend it, I have proved nothing, certainly not the existence of a deity.
Newton also said “This most beautiful system [The Universe] could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being”. I’ll save you the trouble here too, this was one man’s opinion. Yes, one man, one of the great geniuses of any age- a man possessed of a mind that peered farther into the realms of knowledge than any before him and all but a very few since.
I am acutely aware of how exposed I am at this point in my argument to the niggling, quibbling, passive/aggressive “pop the balloon” style sniping that is common on theses internet forums. This game, wherein each statement put forward is attacked piecemeal and picked apart with what seems like logic but is really just the attempt to kill a line of reasoning by ignoring its thrust and sense and taking issue with minutia and irrelevancies in its structure. This practice makes many of the threads in discussion groups like this into mere shooting galleries.
These tactics are used by both sides to support both the positive and negative side of the argument of whether there is a God and what “he” looks like. Newton was not interested in arguments of that kind and I like to think that I can disengage from them too. Newton wanted to gaze at the truth of the Universe to understand and stand in awe and he found that awe in God. You’ll just have to guess what his God looked like because even if you possessed his power of mind (if you do why are you here trifling with the likes of me?), only he saw it from his point of view. Just because you can’t see it – it does not mean its not there.
God is indescribable- yet many insist on believing that they can know God and divine God’s intentions. This is a folly equal to or greater than denying God’s existance. Einstein once said: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man...In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive."
Einstein avoids having to describe the indescribable by his careful dismissal of the “naïve” (one assumes here he refers to the fundamentalist, the literalist and the orthodox) By relying on his experience in science he also avoids the accusation of supernaturalism; if the order he perceives in the “laws of the Universe” is part of the natural order of the Universe, then how can it be supernatural?
Einstein, throughout his life, spoke freely and easily about God without ever naming a characteristic of God- no gender, no abode, no specific description. Shall we demand that Einstein, a man who by the power of his mind broadened the frontiers of what it is possible for humankind to understand, “clear up” a few things before we consider his religious feeling a valid position? Why would we want to do that?
To attack the subtlest most sublime thoughts of a Newton or an Einstein with the puncturing, excoriating arsenal with which the religious naïve and the atheistic literalist negate each other’s arguments is the equivalent of cooking a soufflé with a welder’s torch.
Anyone who appreciates the triumphs of modern science must know that every advance in knowledge has succeeded on the one hand in giving humanity greater powers to manipulate our proximate reality but has also led to ever deeper and more intractable questions and problems. Einstein and Newton brought understanding and scientific rigor to a new frontiers of human. Such a feat of genius is exceedingly rare yet it is still possible for the rest of us to experience the same wonder and awe they expressed in our own lives. The sublime majesty of the Universe can be experienced in everyday life- any time you choose. That “great ocean of truth” is open to anyone who will stride out into it with his mind and heart (simultaneously) open. It is possible to experience this universe in a state of radical wonder while totally alert and critical in mind.
Approach the Universe with wonder and awe; wisdom lies in knowing when and how awe is appropriate. BTW I have a blog where I post this and other views of the wonder I see and the Awe I feel. The blog is dedicated to finding ways for garden-variety minds such as mine to experience this wonder and get a glimpse into the awe that is there for all of us to experience everywhere in this Universe.
Saturday, July 15, 2006
The greatest minds of the scientific world have most often been men of deep religious feeling. Einstein once said: "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man...In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive."
The giants of science have also tended to have a keen appreciation of the limits of human knowledge. Isaac Newton once likened himself to: "...a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." The "less naive" religious feeling Einstein speaks of can be experienced in everyday life- any time you choose. The great ocean of truth is open to anyone who will stride out into it with his mind and heart (simultaneously) open. I believe it is possible to experience this universe in a state of radical wonder while totally alert and critical in mind.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
We Heal Each Other
The darkest day in my life was May 10, 1958 the day when, at the age of 9, I discovered my brother’s body hanging in the basement of our home. Almost immediately, our neighbors took me out of the house and I was shuffled from one house to another and plunked in front of various TV sets. I was utterly abandoned. The first and only spark of comfort I experienced that entire day was given to me by the woman who lived next door to us. It was a simple thing- not in the least profound. Pearl came and took me to her house and sat with me for a little while. I remember her putting her arm around me. She spoke to me and yet I have no idea what she said- there was something she was passing through to me that was beyond words.
Several years ago, when I first started writing my book, I realized how important it had been to me that she had spent that precious few minutes with me. I wrote her a letter telling her how important she had been for me.
Tonight, nearly fifty years later, I had the sad opportunity to return the favor. Her husband has just passed away after a long fight with a debilitating disease. So I went to her home. When I arrived, we looked at each other and we both knew how it was that I came there. We held hands for several minutes and shared inconsequential memories and something once again passed between us, something amplified and deepened by the long years between. God is alive, well and omnipresent.
Saturday, July 01, 2006
God, the Cat and Me
© 2006 Jerome N. Gould
"To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull facilities can comprehend only in the most primitive forms-‑ this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness." Albert Einstein
I once lived with a big cat in a tiny studio apartment. With the bed, two huge chairs, a drafting table, a jewelers bench, two dressers and two walls of bookcases, there was barely enough floor space for a person to sit cross-legged in the middle of the floor. From a cat's point of view, this crush of furniture divided the room into an under-story of grottos and caves and an airy upper-story of mountains and trees.
He was extraordinarily large for a house cat, his muscular frame was finely sculpted beneath his short, luminous gray fur. A member of a species that has a reputation for grace and bearing, Mose was a paragon. His every gesture had poise and authority that commanded attention. Prowling the dark grottos like a jaguar, leaping like a high country puma from the back of a chair to a bookshelf, or sitting sphinx-like in the sunlight that flooded through the bay windows over the bed, he radiated calm and disdain. He was the most magnificent cat I have known and he personified in detail all of the reasons I distrust cats.
As impressive as he was physically, Mose was equipped with no more than the standard mental package for a domestic house cat. He had a full complement of the usual feline vices. The spines of books arrayed on the shelves, were to him merely a soft and inviting variety of tree bark for sharpening his claws. Every drowsy movement of my foot under the bedclothes was a tantalizing incitement, an invitation to pounce with those claws. House plants were objects to be brushed aside from the high ledges where they obstructed his path - or salad greens for grazing at his pleasure. Most irritating of all was the box of litter in the bathroom. Mose seemed to want to make believe that it was a cool, sandy bank - deep in some wild and misty river valley. He would scratch and dig in it so vigorously that if you walked into the room barefoot your soles were instantly coated like breaded fish filets. Then, when the smell and consistency became such that he could no longer sustain the fantasy, he would meow and moon about the place until the clean, cool fantasy was restored. As a predator and solitary hunter in good standing he had nothing but blank disregard for social niceties.
It happened that there was a nest of large, dangerous-looking yellow jacket wasps that lived in the walls of that apartment building. In the autumn, when the weather turned cold, they would come inside. Seeking warmth or food, the wasps found their way in and then couldn't find a way out again. Each one would do the exact same thing. It would be fooled by the wide open expanse of the three sectioned bay window. Following the sunlight it flew along the surface of the glass eternally searching for the way into the open. Back and forth across the panes for hours it searched in vain.
Always, Mose would watch. Immobile, a great gray statue save for the slight quivering that ran up and down his flanks and the stealthy eyes that followed his object everywhere. Patient and cold as blood revenge, he waited for his opportunity. He knew that the yellow jacket would tire eventually.
As it tired, it bumped against the glass more and flew lower, the buzzing loops drooped lower and lower. Mose began shifting on his haunches. His tail twitched in anticipation, his tongue flicked over his lips as if to make them pliable and moist to receive blood. After each low flight a barely audible meow of frustration pried its way out of his mouth, exposing his fangs.
Eventually, Mose would gauge its path, make a leap and snap it out of the air with amazing accuracy.
With his eyes shut, he chewed in a rapid and exaggerated motion. He tried to stab the yellow jacket through with one of his sharp little fangs. All the while, the wasp was stinging the inside of his mouth. I felt a shudder as I watched and thought about the struggling, black legs and the fierce mandibles tearing at the warm pink flesh.
After it was over, Mose would slink away and sit in a dark corner - his tongue so inflamed and swollen that he had to let it hang out of his mouth, over his teeth. Yet each time he spied a wasp, he would have to answer the call of his blood hatred. I wondered at his inability to leave the wasps alone.
One day, I spotted a wasp that Mose hadn't found on his own. This wasp had somehow found its way in and tired itself out before Mose discovered it. I found it crawling on my pillow. I called Mose into the room. Thinking that I could save myself the trouble of disposing of the wasp, I tried to show Mose where it was by pointing at it from across the room.
Do you know what a cat does when you point at something? It stares at your fingertip.
I shook my finger and pointed again- trying to explain to Mose what I wanted of him. The more I gesticulated with my finger and exhorted the cat, the more intently he followed the motions of the finger.
I don’t know exactly why, but this ridiculous situation reminded me of a bible story. Remember now, I was still very angry at God. I had gotten myself thrown out of religious school when I was thirteen. I had abandoned the practice of my Jewish faith at the first opportunity when I had gone away to college. I had clenched myself against even thinking about God. All the same, as I remonstrated with Mose, my thoughts turned to Mose’s namesake and the way G-d led him and the Israelites through the wilderness. As I stood there with an epiphany growing inside me, I felt a very odd thing. I, who had been so angry with G-d for the preceding thirteen years, unexpectedly found myself warming my soul by the faint warmth of an ember that had been kindled by a sacred text. In the act of pointing, I had crossed into a wilderness - a wilderness across which Mose could not follow.
Just as the word of God was not sufficient by itself to guide the wandering tribes in the desert, pointing my finger was not enough to guide the cat. My meaning was beyond Mose’s understanding. He knew something was up but the harder he looked at my finger tip and the more he cocked his head to the side and walked beneath my hand, gazing up at it, the less he understood. The God of Exodus had to send a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to show the children of Israel the way, I had to walk the two small steps across the room, and put my finger next to the yellow jacket. As soon as I did, Mose knew what to do and the wasp was finished.
In that instant I had a glimpse into the futility of my anger at G-d. Pointing is a symbolic act that a cat is incapable of understanding. What I was trying to do by pointing my finger was to take Mose's attention and project it across the room to the enemy that crouched on my pillow. He was able to attend to the finger well enough, but the direction, meaning and distance of the message eluded him entirely. Mose was looking at my finger as if it were the message.
Those two steps that brought my finger next to the wasp spanned a space that could have been bridged by my gesture had Mose the understanding. Without that understanding he was lost. What, I wondered, would I see if G-d could point the way for me?
This was the source of the warmth and comfort I felt. What if God was pointing the way right now and using the cat and to do it?
It had been a dozen years at that point since my falling out with God; but that story was still in my heart all those years and now it rang true. The tale of Moses the reluctant leader, Aaron his brother and high preist and the stubborn, wayward tribes of recently freed slaves wandering around in the wilderness were now connected to my life.
Didn’t God talk directly to Moses from the burning bush, send plagues and miracles in their dozens, didn’t God even personally deliver the holy scriptures to Moses on Mount Sinai? Still the people managed to let their skepticism, fear, pride and pig-headedness lead them out of the right path. So I had to ask myself, “why would I expect to understand, or even know when I was being directed or addressed?
How could I hope to understand the actions of the creator and underlying intelligence of a universe so vastly like a wilderness to my poor little human mind? How infinitely beyond my grasp is the G-d of the universe; while in comparison, what a small margin of superiority I hold over the cat.
In that moment, hope rose in my heart like a great billowing pillar of smoke. Not an answer but a beacon. Swirling upward under the scorching midday sun of the dessert of abandonment my heart had inhabited for a dozen years. Was God yet out there beckoning to me, calling me to accept his help?
That golden story that had been stored in my heart since childhood shone through that moment. Even though I had not understood any of these implications at the time I first heard it, I suddenly knew that there was a reason that it had stayed with me; there is a reason why all of those ancient stories are still recalled and applied to life in this modern world so regularly by believers and non-believers alike.
It’s not that I discovered anything new - it’s that in this one moment wherein I perceived the relationship between the Cat, and me and God, I opened myself to something that comforted me- something that reduced the hold of the old angry thorns that imprisoned my heart. They were not destroyed or even damaged but they were lighter and less confining. If I could have seen the light on the strength of this one burst of insight, and had an instant conversion to deep religiosity, this would be a very much shorter story. Life and real religion are not that simple, however. I had taken a small but significant step toward reconnecting with the single greatest source of wisdom our culture has to offer. Finding a connection with a Biblical story that spoke to my pain so directly was the beginning of my reconciliation with God. Even so, it would be a long journey and many more years before I made any more progress.