During my "re-engage with the world and clear your head" lunch time walk, I wandered into Borders. Here was a small crowd of women, somewhere between a queue and a melee, who were not picking over boutiques and jewelry shops! Instead, they were clutching copies of a fat novel, waiting for the autograph of the author.
It all fitted in; the queue to the author, the shallow glitz of the Mall, and what I've been reading lately. I've been reading about how we fixate and focus on some diverting thing to blunt the pain of our existence. And our inevitable death.
I know about this. Before ten years old, it all crashed down on me. The absurd, futile, insoluble puzzle of my existence, has haunted me ever since then. Hockey was a passion which blunted the pain. The endorphins from distance running helped. Bushwalking brought a communion with something transcendent in the land, and community with friends. The discipline and solitude of long distance cycle touring did something of the same. For a while, chasing cars down from Eagle on the Hill was an addictive mix of calculation and skill, and baiting my mortality.
Yet each passion wore out. It was never enough to hold back my native reflectiveness. Neither could it withstand, for long, the deeply imprinted need from my mother and grandfather, to be honest about things. Religion offered a new way to look at the problem. However, it was very soon clear that religion could also be just one more diversion and denial. Even well ensconced in a death denying environment, the bible makes it obvious, if we take time to read it, that belief simply to escape death is a poor religion.
So where from here?
The short answer is, "I don't know, but that's OK." To be definite about death and its consequences, beyond the fact that it is a radical ending to the way things are now, is to kid ourselves. That's true for the religious types who confidently trumpet some kind of after life; their stridence betrays them. But it is also true for the scientific types who say because the body stops, we do. That's a strangely confident view, given how much trouble we have understanding consciousness and its genesis. So, things will change, and I have no idea how.
But somehow, I'm OK with this. I have found a catchphrase of Bishop Spong, that deeply conservative scholar who so frightens people by drawing them back to their scriptures, is profoundly true. And profoundly biblical. Live life fully, love wastefully , be all you can be. There is a transcendence, which comes from seeking to live out, even in a small and imperfect way, the teachings of Jesus. This, after all, is what "belief" used to mean.
You see, today should be a very bad day for me, based on previous experience. It's a blessedly cool day after a week of heat wave. Usually the first cool day leaves me exhausted and depressed, not to mention grumpy. It has also been ten very over-busy days for me, working too hard, with parish demands getting on top of me. The end of such a period does not just leave me physically exhausted. I get depressed, and worse, lose all my perspective on the world. All my cynicism and despair, and all the hopelessness since my first childhood alienation, wells up and cripples me.
Physically, today is not so good. My legs ached all the way into the city, and my superlight bike felt like it was made of cast iron. By lunch time I was falling asleep. A post heat wave headache is threatening.
In the middle of this, I am more relaxed than I once thought was possible. Writing and thinking about these things is enjoyable and intriguing, rather than an exercise in facing down despair. Because I have been loving wastefully, rather than, to be blunt, ‘giving to please God,' something has changed in me. Life and its unknowns have become more precious, and much less burdensome. It is not the same struggle.
I suspect my brain chemistry is set at the "Intense and Brooding" end of the scale. "Happy go lucky," I am not, and never will be. I will periodically drive my wife nuts, while I withdraw into periods of gloomy introspection as I struggle to stay alive. But there is a change. It is the giving to others. It is the ‘lightening up' which is content to simply contemplate, and stops battering on with a bloody-headed insistence on finding an answer. It is the refusal to let the little gods of consumerism, or the church, or worthy causes get in the way of Ultimate Concerns; there is a balance to manage here.
I can't remember the name of the woman who was signing books. It's gone, just like the names of all those books and authors I used to collect. It doesn't matter!
What I've been reading:
Eternal Life, A New Vision John Shelby Spong
Freud's Ghost and the Quest for an Authentic Faith Richard Beck
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