Friday, July 08, 2005

More Thoughts on Meaning from My Tiring and Tangled Supply

My husband laughs (kindly) at me because there are two or three themes that run through my thinking at any given time and I have a knack for always bringing everything back to one of these things. Right now the two most prevalent of these are habit (proper forming of them and the way our lives run in them and how the mere practice of habit can turn, into reality, that which was only pretending before), and something I like to call the "sacramental nature of the physical world".

Anytime I hear the word "habit" a little buzzer goes off in my head. So I throw the word, encased in its context, up onto my mental turntable and sit back, examining it in 3-D, to see if I can match it to an existing nuance of the word, already in my brain. Then I tuck it away for later use. I am constantly collecting scrap fragments pertaining to these two ideas, and fitting them into proper files, as if I am writing a book on the subject. (And actually, the more I do this the more these two particular strands of thought seem to converge. So perhaps some day- a long, long time from now- I will dust off the files and drop them into a book.)

I devoted two of my previous posts to habit and talked about the origins of the idea in me, personally. I don’t honestly know when this second idea, “the sacramental nature of the physical world’ began evolving in my thought, but I know I only started using it as a phrase a few months ago.

I think it came to me in an epiphany moment, but one with a small group of precursors, unrelated to one another, which somehow coalesced.

The idea stems from my belief that God created human beings as both physical and spiritual entities and that one is not more, in quality or quantity, than the other. In fact, I think that one is incomplete without the other, which is why death is such a terrifying and unnatural thing: it disembodies the soul.

As my friend, Stephanie mentioned recently, on this blog, the way we care for or neglect our bodies has profound effects on our emotions and mental well-being. We have more proof for this now than we ever have, because of our ability to study the components and functions of body and mind and environment in detail and with great accuracy.

This is why it strikes me as odd that the world is changing into the largely intangible one created by internet technology. There is talk of the next great evolution of humankind into disembodied mind (which sounds to me like the same thing as death), and this is heralded as freedom from our current restrictions of time and space and mass. (Didn’t we already reject this idea when it presented in Gnosticism?)

Many “communities” aren’t localized, anymore. I (to my shame) have not said more than two words to my neighbor in two years, but I exchange ideas and struggles with my friend, Andrew, in England on an almost weekly basis. I regularly read the weblogs of friends from far away, and even a few people I’ve never met in person. This gives me a sense of “connectedness”, which isn’t altogether false - and which I could fairly easily content myself with - but which is, nonetheless, lacking something essential to human life.

A very large majority of us, in the United States and the rest of the developed world, live lives which are disconnected from, and seemingly independent of, the earth. I have never seen an animal slaughtered nor hunted and killed one, yet I have eaten thousands of tasty, meaty meals. That cornflake covered non-descript shape of something called “chicken” bares no resemblance to the animal by the same name. And since I can buy it in the store, de-boned and de-veined and pumped full of preservatives, I don’t ever have to think about the connection between the two. I don’t want to be an extremist or to say that I don’t myself enjoy the convenience of this, but I can’t help feeling that it creates a loss of respect for animal life and therefore a loss of meaning to the human lives which subsist on the animals.

I saw a movie once (can’t remember what it was) in which a Native American shot and killed a deer for food. He followed the blood-trail to where the animal, lean and beautiful, lay dying. He held its head in his hands; I imagined he could feel its warm breath, coming out in shallow snorts. As the doe’s bright, innocent eyes turned glassy and opaque, the man, still kneeling in the dirt beside it, said a ritualistic prayer for the animal’s soul, bidding it to go in peace. I was so struck by this portrayal, because I had never seen the killing of an animal presented beautifully and with respect for its life. The man needed food and the deer’s life had to be sacrificed; but blood was not shed lightly. The pangs of death were felt by hunter and hunted, alike.

Very few of us grow any of our own food and none of us is going to starve if the rain gods refuse to smile on us. We don’t know what kinds of wood or stone are best for particular forms of craftsmanship. I don’t spin thread from wool and knit a sweater to last my son for the winter; instead he has so many clothes of every sort that I have to navigate around giant, never receding mounds of clothing in my laundry room.

Again, I am not suggesting that life in some falsely conjured “good old days” was easy or even ideal. I am only pointing out that the further we remove ourselves from the things which sustain our lives, the further we remove ourselves from purpose. And this is because the earth was given to us to cultivate and care for, and to give us a glimpse of something beyond ourselves; something holy and beautiful and meaningful. The way that my work becomes an extension of myself and I become the work that I am doing – the way soil feels loose and rocky or the way it smells when I pull out weeds: mineral-y, ancient and fresh all at once; the pungent taste of wine; the melodious laughter of a friend; the alien and yet familiar look in an animal’s eye- the inexplicable way in which all of these things inform and shape and administer grace to our souls: This is the sacramental nature of the physical world.

Like most things I think about and form opinions about, I am sadly inconsistent in my application of these things to my life. And, in great part, that is why I live in a state which continually pushes me to the point of despair. To restate a comment from a reader: Life is full of meaning and I am not living in that meaning.


laura said...

I wasn't going to comment on your blog honestly because I have never been one to go on philosophically as all your bloging buds do, But then I figure, "Ah, what the hell, maybe I really don't have anything to say."

"The idea stems from my belief that God created human beings as both physical and spiritual entities and that one is not more, in quality or quantity, than the other. In fact, I think that one is incomplete without the other, which is why death is such a terrifying and unnatural thing: it disembodies the soul."

I used to really fear death. In fact I figure I would be one of those forgotten people that go missing for a few days to a week and my landlord finds me only because of the awful odor coming from
my bedroom/bathroom/etc.

Not to scare you, but that's how I thought. I am not afraid anymore. I mean, yeah I have fears, but keeping a conscious contact with God in my everyday life steers me away from acting on those crazy-ass thoughts. And believe me, thay came about a mile a minute (on a good day).

Glad you have an outlet and people that are more like-minded as you that you can discuss such issues.

Rachael said...

Thanks for the comment, Laura.

I don't really know why I live in constant pontification while you live in a world of action and inter-action (as evidenced by all the people you know).

To be honest, I'm tired of thinking. I enjoy writing and bringing together ideas- while I'm doing it- but I almost always hate myself in the morning.

What you have is a gift- when you believe something you apply yourself to it, you stay focused, you ask people for help and offer help.

The irony of my position is that I take care to think everything through to the point of absurdity--the process which is supposed to illumine me leads to obscurity and profound confusion.

I'm like someone going on two weeks vacation who's afraid of forgetting something at home; so he stays there checking and re-checking his list until he's got to go to work, again.

You mention having no fear of death, due to your daily, "conscious contact with God". That's wonderful. Because all of my studying and philosophizing about God has left me more open to doubt. By this I mean that I am so aware of my relative ignorance and the absolute impossibility of considering all the factors in any subject, that I burden myself with questions like "well, what if I really don't know anything at all? What if God isn't who I think He is at all? What if He doesn't claim me, the way I claim Him?"

These questions are rarely serious enough to shake my faith (anymore) but I wouldn't say they are rare.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I know I go on too long. ;)

laura said...

Rachael, I know and believe that if I obsess on one thing and think, think, think all the damn time, I will get myself nowhere. I will be on a hamster wheel going nowhere really fast. And for that I know I need to stop because it's gonna drive me mad.

For instance tonight, I had decided to call someone from my past. Someone I know I need to make amends with. Of course this person did not answer their phone. I wasn’t really expecting them to. Now I have made myself sick for the past 5 or so hours with those crazy-ass insane thoughts like "Oh they hate me" I'm such a loser, etc." All because I haven't heard from them yet.

This is silly. So to ward off these nasty thoughts, I remind myself I did what I needed to do. I don't want to end up being that guy ready to go on vacation, re-checking his list. When I hung up the phone, I visually pictured myself handing a heavy trash bag to God. I can't do a damn thing about this and I have to be okay with that.

Wow. This entry turned into a personal blog...sorry;)

laura said...

Btw-thanks for the compliment:)