This summer re-run is from six years ago. Way back then, I actually thought we could confront the narcissism that has been taking over our culture. Silly me.
The tidbits of popular inspiration roll through twitter and facebook in a nearly constant stream. You want your stuff retweeted or shared through the networks? Come up with a bit of folk enlightenment, maybe put it into a jpg pic as a “meme” (horrible mis-use of that word!). Keep it simple – a quick saying or maybe a set of “tips” devoid of heavy philosophy that could wear down a bizzy day. It could be a Bible verse or a simple admonishment to be a more decent person.
There’s nothing wrong with this sort of stuff, and it probably has been present throughout the history of human interaction. But the volume and popularity of these sorts of things leads me to wonder if there isn’t a hunger for spirituality and connection that is missing from the ordinary grind of the day. There appears to be a missing presence in the moment, a sense that ghosts float past our conscience whispering a calling to be a better part of the world.
This piece originally ran in 2016.
If you have a healthy news diet, you can easily be forgiven for thinking everything is going to Hell. Then again, that doesn’t seem too healthy. Perhaps “No news is good news” has a resonance far beyond the original intent of the folk saying.
Is there good in the world? Of course there is. People are helping each other and just being decent all the time. Yet in a world always closer together it seems as though there is a shortage of good things everywhere.
The difference, I believe, is what lies just outside of human scale. The world comes to us through machinery – ripped of context, stripped of humanity. It’s up to all of us to provide some context with our own empathy and judgment. Seeing good in the world is indeed about unplugging our brains from the noise and reveling in a good time with friends, a quiet moment alone, or even an hour passed in a patch of clover.
Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses!
– Juvenal, Satire X, “Wrong Desire is the Source of Suffering”
The “Fall of Rome” trope has always been an easy one to dismiss. After all, we’re stronger and more connected than they ever were, yes? The public is more literate, our history is stronger, and times are simply different than they were back so very long ago.
“Conventional Wisdom” isn’t.
Everyday life is the process of understanding and using key facts about the world around us. The sky is blue, red means stop, the 94 bus leaves at 7:53, and coffee will wake you up. Most of the important things in life are obvious enough, based on immediate observation or past experiences strung together.
However, the presence of technology and a growing interconnectedness impinges critical “facts” onto our lives which reach far beyond our senses and sensibilities. Cell phones work because they just work, this thing called “money” in our bank account is extremely important, people who live in distant lands are motivated by something akin to demonic possession, et cetera.
This is where it all breaks down. Or, more importantly, where things breaking down accelerates as reason itself fails.
As the world is shaped a bit smaller by various technologies and opportunities, nearly everyone finds themselves working or living next to people they do not understand or even like. There are so very many cultures, beliefs, attitudes, mindsets, and ways of doing things that it’s impossible to keep straight.
People are people, however, but cultures are cultures. Generally, any given person will react about the same way, within bounds, to any given stimulus. But since all of us come from different cultures, it’s often very hard to know just what someone is thinking as we don’t know how they have learned over time to think about what is important, what is moral, or what they own.
Certainly, among all these cultures, one must be “The Best,” yes? No. Not at all. They cannot be compared that way and they are never any kind of marker for genetic or intellectual superiority. They are nothing more than a series of observations which became habits which were in turn codified. To miss this is to miss the richness of the world, and to simply accept it is to miss the importance of intuition and intellect working together which defines our species.
The violinist was hired to play Christmas music in the atrium of Capella Tower in Minneapolis over lunch, but he clearly felt he could add a personal touch. He placed it up above the crowd where it echoed off the glass and marble, the light hand on a single violin piercing consciousness with the Prelude from Partita #3 by JS Bach.
I walked over slowly, bowed my head, closed my eyes, and allowed myself to be transformed. For a moment I wasn’t there or any place with earthly cares – there was this tremendous sound, the man whose craft propelled it into the air, and myself. When he was done I quietly, almost apologetically said what I could. “Thank you.” It wasn’t enough, but it was all I had. His response, equally respectful of the moment, said more. “My pleasure.”
This was a meeting not between any two people but between the two of us who, I am sure, share a religion. It is a sense of spirituality that comes from the gut strings of a fiddle and echoes not just through marble halls but through our hearts and minds every moment we can allow it. This is a sense of faith in the order of the universe given to both of us, skilled and unskilled, by JS Bach more than 260 years ago.
This is a repeat from last year. It’s far too simple and it doesn’t get to the heart of what is changing. A year has brought some clarity, but I wanted to first present this as a starting point for a discussion this week.
There seems to be some greater conflict in the world, Everyone has a theory as to where the batle lines are drawn – liberal versus conservative, white versus non-white, Muslim versus infidel, young versus old. Not all of these can be right at the same time, which brings to mind two questions:
What is the “real” conflict? And why is it not obvious?
The battle, if there is a real one, is primarily a matter of general anxiety. It’s an internal conflict within many people who have lost a sense of hope for a better tomorrow. But outwardly, it manifests itself into a battle between stability and chaos – a conflict between the preservation of what order exists and a desire to wash it away in order to make way for something, anything else.