What we think we know

September 25, 2010

It’s a bit surprising to start writing with a preconceived notion of the topic and then wind up with a conclusion totally opposite from the preconception held at the beginning.  You all have heard the old saw . . . assume only makes an ass of you and me. Presume  does the same thing. Sometimes presumptions and assumptions need examination . . . we don’t always know what we think we know.

Poor Richard worked all day in the shop last Sunday and hopefully won’t burn in hell for dereliction of church attendance, not that there aren’t other just causes for the same unfortunate end. While there, I had the radio tuned to NPR, usually my station of choice. They’ve renamed their Sunday AM commentary. It used to be  Speaking of Faith. Now it’s Being.  Being is a broader, more all-encompassing word that apparently validates the inclusion of all types of abstraction that push the envelope way beyond what normal listeners would consider discussions of faith, ethics, or other definable or at least potentially constrainable topics.

Last Sunday’s broadcast featured Joanna Macy, who was introduced as a “philosopher of ecology, Buddhist scholar and translator of the works of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.” Ms. Macy is without doubt a fascinating woman with amazing life experiences. She was a Fulbright scholar, worked for the CIA in postwar Germany, with the Peace Corps in India and occupied the Seabrook nuclear reactor before it could open.  She is now 81, amazingly lucid, if somewhat adrift of the main waterways.

When I started writing this, I was prepared to go off on a diatribe about the misuse of language and the ever popular presumption that by eloquently stringing words together meaning is created (whether anyone understands it or not). Upon first listening, much of the interview with Ms. Macy seemed nonsensical, even bordering on lunatic.  It’s certainly out there.  Here’s an excerpt:

And that had a great spiritual teaching for me too, Krista, because it led me into fascination, if not obsession — I’ll say obsession — with long-term radioactive contamination through our processes of making weapons and generating power that insisted that I open my mind to reaches of time that had stretched both my heart and my intellect. In other words, I realized that we were, through technology, having consequences with our decisions — our decisions had consequences or a karma, as we could say, that reached into geological time. And that what in industry and government choices that we make under pressure for profit or bureaucratic whatever, that we are making choices that will affect whether beings thousands of generations from now will be able to be born sound of mind and body.

All this to say that there are long-term environmental implications from our decisions.  And there are other equally obtuse passages in the interview. After reviewing the transcript, though, I also find something quite different. There are jewels of wisdom in this conversation, insights from a person who has truly lived 81 years. Here’s one:

The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that.

I have a very Christian friend who has made almost the same statement when speaking of Jesus’ command to “love one another.” He says that the most active expression of love is simply showing up, being engaged.

Ms. Macy provides another optimistic insight regarding the clarity of thinking of a younger generation:

and they’re able to look into the face of some pretty awful political corrupt machinations or what have you that would get me frothing with righteous indignation and they smile and shrug and say, “What do you expect?” and then they go and do what needs to be done.

That’s refreshing, although it’s upsetting that my generation is at the root of the corruption that the next generations are coping with.  Perhaps in doing what needs to be done, they can unravel some of the snarled up mess that we’ve created.

Finally,  there’s the poetry.  Poor Richard is no student of poetry, but I found one of the verses compelling. Here it is:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness

Give me your hand.

-from the Book of Hours, Rainer Maria Rilke

A wonderful anthem for an engaged life.  Sometimes it’s good for one’s presumptions to be disrupted. This is when we learn that our preconceptions, what we think we know, may be neither as accurate or profound as we once thought.  Read the transcript.