Chapter 4 – We Have A Place
Amongst the collection of Christmas ornaments that my family unpacked from a battered cardboard storage box each holiday season was a set of a half a dozen heavier gauge aluminum foil snowflakes in those anodized metal colorings now so familiar to us all – blue and green, red and violet, silver and gold. They unfolded in popup book fashion from the flatness of their latent state into eight-pointed wonders for which I took personal responsibility. Perhaps because of their size – they were about as big around as dinner plates – or perhaps because they were always on the bottom of the box and thus became an afterthought to the decorating process, they ended up becoming my personal bedroom decorations. I’d climb up on a stepladder and attach their strings to the plaster ceiling with asterisks of masking tape that occasionally required a supplemental strip or two over the course of the holiday season.
My fondest memory of those snowflakes was of laying in bed watching them spin faster on their strings whenever the furnace kicked on and then gradually unwinding when it kicked off again – over and over and over. I recall one particular evening when my parents were having company and the adult activity continued much longer and a little bit louder than usual subsequent to my being sent off to bed. Light from the living room filtered into the hallway and underneath my bedroom door to set those snowflakes flickering as they spun. Murmurings of adult conversation, likewise, filtered in to where I lay – making me feel warm and cozy, cared for and protected. I had a place. All was as it should be. And as I drifted off to sleep that evening I likely entered a state of mind not too far removed from that oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness that a contented infant might enjoy while lying in her crib watching the brightly colored mobile spin slowly over her head.
Childhood has the potential to foster feelings of security and belonging unlike any we will ever experience. When else but in childhood do we feel as though a place has been created for us alone, that people who are so much wiser and more powerful are watching over us and lovingly considering our every need? What if we could carry such peaceful feelings into adulthood? Unfortunately, though, the innocence of our childhood can’t last forever. Our parents can’t be there for us forever. Besides, we eventually come to realize that they’re not as smart or strong as we’d once thought, despite their loving us much more than we could ever know.
It’s not surprising, then, that we might try to keep such feelings alive as long as possible by nurturing belief in some sort of personal and parental God – one who is omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent. As long as we play well the role of the obedient child, we might tell ourselves, then God will continue to play the role of watchful guardian. Of course, things don’t always go as we would like in life, and when that happens we might be inclined to reason that God is teaching us a well-deserved lesson – guiding us along as a caring, if stern, parent might do.
But what about those times when innocence and goodness are met with such brutality and injustice that no amount of rationalization can bring us to accept its being part of God’s grand plan? Child victims of war, disease, starvation and abuse – such all too common realities strain to the breaking point our belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent God, just as our erstwhile belief in the infallibility of our own parents was eventually strained to the breaking point. We might be tempted, then, to peel away our idea of a personal God from the harsh realities all around us and declare that He still loves us even as He foregoes interceding in the injustices wrought by a world ostensibly of His creation. And so it is that we might continue feeling loved for the remainder of our days, and with that sense of love might come a modicum of peace, but the security that we might have once enjoyed in childhood will remain forever in the past. The potential for “injustice” will always be right around the corner. Crime, disease, financial hardship, disaster and accident are always waiting in the wings – if not in reality, then in our minds.
How, then, do we reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of our childhood – the wisdom that allowed us to settle unhesitatingly into that calm sense of wellbeing that still lingers as a distant memory? Of course, I’m well aware that you might be prepared to question my use of the word ‘wisdom’ here. Perhaps the aphorism that ignorance is bliss is more apropos from your point of view? We were ignorant of our parents’ inability to truly keep us safe and sound. We were ignorant of all the ways that our world could come crashing down around us. Alright then, let’s step back and explore the nature of that ignorance.
Before the age of 12 or so children are unable to engage in very deeply abstract or hypothetical thought. Until then we think of the world in mostly concrete terms. Our world, for the most part, is what we can apprehend with our senses. Life takes place primarily in the here and now and the "finality" of death is a not very well understood reality. Selfhood, likewise, is a concept that is not quite fully grasped. Think of how young children, if pressed, describe themselves: My name is Amy. I’m five years old. I have a dog named Charlie. My Daddy takes us to the park and we run and play catch. I like peanut butter and jelly. I like to draw and read books.
It is only later, after the emergence of self-awareness, that we come to possess such well-developed and articulate answers to the questions of who we are and what we’re here for and where we go when we die: I am so and so, and I believe such and such, and I stand for this and that, and I’m here to accomplish thus and such with my life, and when I’m gone I know I’m going to heaven (or becoming reincarnated, or whatever it is that we might believe). The funny thing is, however, that despite our answers becoming more and more developed and articulate as we grow older, they are not necessarily any more accurate!
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” Socrates is reported to have said. This wisdom of not knowing is something that adepts of the Zen tradition become quite familiar with. In order to really see in the Zen sense, one must let go of words and concepts and ideas regarding the so-called knower and the known. Only then does real seeing take place. This dropping off of conceptualization extends even to that which we take most for granted - ourselves. Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, for instance, when asked who he was by the emperor of his day is reported to have replied quite matter-of-factly that he didn’t know!
Mindfulness practice is becoming rather ubiquitous these days in the treatment of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addiction and so forth. Rooted in techniques of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness practice gets us back into our bodies and out of that place where the real suffering of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and addiction takes place – our heads. When we’re out of our heads and into our bodies, focusing on our breath or the coming and going of bodily sensations, we’re not worrying about the future or regretting the past; we’re simply in this moment living out the reality of our existence – much like a child.
It seems, then, that some of the most profound wisdom that we can live by is that which urges us to be less sure of what we know, to loosen our iron grip on our sense of selfhood, and to live more in the here and now – away from the schemes and concerns that so consume us. In this way, the blissful ignorance (innocence) of our childhood is actually an expression of embodied wisdom – that which we already know.
Lest anyone be confused by what I’m saying here, I am not advocating that we eschew all abstract thought and conceptualization and regress back to some idealized childhood state. We are now adults and, however fallen we may be, we must stand up where we are and continue living. We need to be able to think clearly and deeply from time to time, and our ability to do so should be nurtured and celebrated. Hopefully we come to know our minds well enough that we might use them like an artisan uses his or her array of tools. When it is skillful and appropriate to chisel away on something, then we do so. When it is skillful and appropriate to refrain from chiseling away on anything, then we refrain from doing so.
Can we ever again know such feelings of security and belonging as we hopefully knew at least at one time as a child? Can we be such skillful artisans that we turn our minds off completely to the concerns of our day to day lives as well as those existential concerns that have us pondering the nature of God and creation and the afterlife? And what if we do? Will we have lost some of what makes us human in the process, or will we actually find our place of belonging in the kingdom of God?
Snowflake image cropped and filtered from a photo courtesy:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank