Friday, April 13, 2007

For a reason

There was a time when I made an inchoate prayer out of finding small objects, things that winked up at me from the sidewalk. Inevitably, a lot of these things were toys children had lost--a rubber stamp showing Piglet with a balloon, a 1-inch pinched-clay teacup, marbles. Some were more grown-up: a miniature leather jacket meant as a key chain, a shrink-wrapped sample bottle of lubricant.

These are still arranged on my dresser with other bits and pieces I've accumulated. A piece of driftwood from a childhood beach, a rusty horseshoe I found in a creek when I was seven, a piece of rock my uncle claimed was from the petrified forest. A turks-head bracelet a friend made for my teddy bear, a wristband from the Michigan Women's Music Festival, the only year I went. A pin from the Red Cross for swimming 50 miles, most in a single summer. A clay pipe, never used, given to me by a ceramicist friend when I was coming out. A school token for the DC Metro, now out-of-date nearly thirty years.

I never fully thought out why I had these found objects, let alone put them in pride of place with other things that had clear sentimental meaning. It was consciously a gesture of mischief, of honoring chaos and attention as much as sentiment and history. I would say to people that I believed in a god of coincidence, and these were the traces I followed. There were series of findings: in my mid-twenties, I found playing cards. In my late twenties, I found bolts and screws. Both were remarkable in their diversity. Since I moved out here to the residential reaches of the city I walk less, and so does everyone else. There's less lost on the sidewalks, waiting to be found. And I think I have also stopped paying attention because the game doesn't really matter to me anymore.

I don't see god that way anymore, as an absent trickster. There was a time when I saw god as akin to an animating force, the purified essence of being, a Platonic ideal of existence. As I write this I'm understanding how hard it is to do theology, because what I mean keeps slipping away from the words I try to pin it down with.

Today my therapist told me she thinks everything happens for a reason, so that we can learn and grow. I admire her as a spiritual seeker--she has committed much more of her life to finding a path than I ever could--but this is not theology I can accept or use. It's self-evident that people do learn and grow when bad things happen, that is, if they don't self-destruct or tear their worlds apart or pass the legacy of bad things on to their children. I would be much more comfortable with leaving the intentionality out of it: okay, this bad thing happened, and learning and growth are the best of the shitty options available to us in our traumatized state. Let's see if we can make our way there.

I had a kind of a rockin' history teacher in tenth grade. I didn't appreciate him enough at the time. One of the things he laid out for us was the dilemma of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent god. You can't hang on to all three in the face of the truly bad things. I choose to hang on to benevolence. This is akin to the Belarussian beekeeper's small god. An omnipotent, omniscient higher power that is using the complex chaos and misery of this entropic world in order to dole out challenging life lessons is not benevolent. Yes, I know that free will has a place in any argument about divine omnipotence, but if we assume things happen for a reason than we have already assumed that free will is limited in that the will that apparently was operating freely was following a divine plan.

I would prefer to find divinity in the networks of people who help each other in times of crisis. This is why it is so powerful to me that the kaddish (mourning prayer) is responsive, requiring the presence of a minyan of ten adult Jews. A minyan is not actually such an easy thing to put together--you need a large community or a very dedicated one. You need a web of relationships to drawn on. You need to work against entropy to maintain them over time. This is mundane, limited, Sisyphean, and human--and also transcendent and holy.

From Pirkei Avot: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.


niobe said...

I'll come back later and comment on the content of your thoughtful and intricate (I think that's the right word) post.

I just wanted to say that this is the second time I've seen the word Sisyphean in the last three days. Prior to then, I had seen it, well, never.

Is there a meme going around that I missed where you're required to work it into a post? Could I substitute Tantalusan?

wolfa said...

I have occasionally blogged on things happening so we can learn something. Of course we do learn something, but that formulation makes it sound like we cause these things to happen, but the learning sort of follows automatically.

We don't cause these bad things to happen, generally, and it's the learning which takes work and effort.

Maybe this isn't true in some sense of true, but it's true for me; I like the formulation better, and it feels right.

If it makes someone else feel better, I can say that whatever happened for some reason. But I am always quite clear that I do not think they do, and that I find it less than consoling. I admit, I have trouble taking seriously the consolations of people who I know believe that.

You've read 'The Sparrow', right? I think it's one of the better fictional takes on what it means to have a benevolent, omnipotent god, or not. (Written while the author was in the process of converting to Judaism, though mostly it comes via Christianity.)

Phantom Scribbler said...

It's fascinating to me that you've managed to create another network of people just by following Cristin's links from Helen's memorial. Another way that you have purposely turned trauma into an avenue for learning and growth. But I agree: it would be an abomination to imagine that the trauma had occurred in order to create that avenue for growth.

niobe said...

The fact that bad things seem to strike randomly and that evil often goes unpunished is why polytheism make sense -- or at least dualism, with one good god and one evil god competing for domination of the world and of your soul. Or, I guess, like (I think) the Cathars, you could believe that the entire physical world is evil. Then your problem would be to explain the existence of good.

S. said...

Wolfa, I am embarrassed to say I haven't read the Sparrow, because it's one that two of my staffers have raved about. I'll take a look.

Phantom, I think the thing that impressed me so much about Cristin's site is how it maps Helen's networks. And seeing myself within that web has helped me. Being part of the minyan for Paul, and for each other. (I'm still trying to figure out a post about Adams House.)

Niobe, I hadn't really thought about polytheism and evil. Of course! But then you have to consider the possibility of worship and sacralizing of evil. Not that it doesn't happen under monotheism, but it tends to happen in the secular realm rather than the religious. I think your thinking on this is careful and unexpected.