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the world is a living mystery
on stars, cities, and control
I am plagued by the concept of control. When did this behavior begin? When did we start defining the living world as something that needed to be tamed, quieted, and ordered? Why do I feel such an urge to control the outcomes of my life?
When did Man the Master, Homo magister, take center stage?
In a moment of quiet today, I thought of the stillness of the air-conditioned room in which I live. I thought of the soft carpet, the straight, white walls, and the ever-flowing hot water and heat and tools with which to cook and wash and be oh so comfortable. I notice the door is broken because it is essentially made of cardboard. I think of the cheap-yet-fancy looking fixtures in this brand new suburban apartment complex and wonder if, as the contractors swiftly erected this building, they did everything they could to make this building structurally sound. I think of how I miss living in my van, though I’m grateful to have a warm shelter to live in.
And then often, as I’m drifting to sleep, I imagine a landslide. I imagine the apartment complex sliding down the hill, obliterating the houses below us, pipes breaking, and flames engulfing us. I imagine the windows cracking and the glass shards splattering me in my bed. Perhaps a landslide would wake us all up to our utter lack of control, at least for a moment.
The world is very strangely distorted when too much time is spent inside a city, surrounded by artificial lighting and concrete, and I am far from the first person to say this. This is a romantic concept, one scorned by those who believe in mechanical, technological progress as the endpoint of our civilization.
Still, unanswered questions and unaccounted losses abound in this artificial world. What is left out when there is so much light pollution that people don’t see the stars anymore? What is left out when the only glimpses of wildness are the odd resilient weed or pigeon? What do we miss when we are so wrapped up in human affairs that we neglect to watch the sunset?
I think something essential, which we have lost as civilization has grown into what it has become, is our relationship with mystery. Imagine being one of the first people to ever see a solar eclipse. There is impossible magic in this experience, which is largely denuded when we explain it as “just” a celestial phenomena, one that can be tracked and traced and predicted. What is hardly ever pointed out, however, is how we have exactly zero control over such an event. We mask this reality through our intellect – implicitly assuming that through our understanding, we are in control. We needn’t fear the little half-moon slivers that cover the ground, or how all at once, at its epicenter, the Earth’s surface moves like water for just a moment, so quick you could almost miss it, like standing in the center of a dark ocean. Then, looking up at the sun and moon conjunct in their totality, with the feeling that every inch of the Self melts into insignificance…
What is lost when I don’t see such magical things?
I can only see a few stars from where I live currently: Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus. Others are only faint whispers of constellations behind the haze of pollution, light and otherwise.
A few days after the pandemic started, an earthquake shook this whole valley. I hope that, for a moment, while people scrambled to remember their earthquake drills in grade school, there was a dawning realization:
“I am not in control here. This house is an illusion. This building is a mirage. This city, seeming to claim the land beneath its roads, is made of nothing that will last.”
Luckily, no one died in this quake. People were terrified, of course, and they were already on edge about a pandemic that we had no information about at the time.
Earthquakes are interesting in that, for the most part, seismology is only useful as a means of measurement. There are patterns and predictions that can be gleaned, but there isn’t an exact science as to when an earthquake will strike or how big it will be. If we view this fact as a problem that needs to be solved, we may miss some crucial understanding about the world: that the Earth is a living mystery.
The Earth is alive. Just as coronavirus is a living being, living beings by all accounts are mysterious to us. We are as mysterious to ourselves as coronavirus or earthquakes are to us. We can understand their basic functions, the way they move and why, but what propels them and what their purpose in creation is far less certain. We can understand our anatomy to an extent, but what we truly know of ourselves is basically nothing. We don’t know why we dream. We don’t know why our psychology forms in one way or another, not really. We don’t know what happens when we die. We don’t even fully know how we got here.
The smartest minds of the past 2,000 years and more have been trying to parse out what exactly Homo sapiens is to no universal conclusion whatsoever. Religions of every cloak have attempted to circumnavigate the human soul to no avail. More often than not, their conclusions were so antithetical to what humans actually seem to be that we find ourselves in this space of converging crises we face now.
There is so little in this universe that is tangible, the human soul being one that atheists will try to explain away and many religions try to pin down with absolutes. The reality is that no one knows at all what any of this means, so we cling to fantasies of certainties. We build houses that are in a constant state of entropy the moment we erect them. We try to evade our inevitable demise with this medical treatment or that car, this life-path or that.
We forget that there are stars behind the smog and in that forgetting, we must cling even harder to the fictitious control and certainties we so desperately desire. We pathetically try to control life which is inherently uncontrollable. Anyone who has been in a natural disaster knows this to be true. We create a façade of uniformity, and a flood washes it away. We try to plant trees that we will be able to efficiently log, and the whole forest burns.
What if we sang to the forests instead?
I recently read a heartbreaking bit from Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth, where he talks about how we've lost our ability to sing to the forest. Even my computer, just now, tried to correct that last sentence from “sing to the forest” to “sing in the forest” – there is no magic and mystery in this digital machine world that has seemed to erect itself by its own will around us. It wants to make us the subject of that sentence, rather than whom we ought to sing to.
There are cultures today who still sing to the forest. All children do, if only given the chance. And there are moments, like in the above photograph, where we know we are in the presence of something ineffable, and all you can think is, “This is holy. This is where God is.” I was as atheistic and divorced from spirituality at this time as I’d ever been, and those words were the only words in the English language that I could muster to describe what it felt like to be there.
There is something inborn about our relationship to the living mystery. As far as I can tell, we weren’t always so confused about how to live, but something shifted, something changed, and we all are seeking certainty as to what that shift was, and why. We weren’t always disconnected like this. We weren’t always so afraid of the uncertainty of living in a world that is incomprehensible to us.
Even in our questing to understand, we seem to reduce things down and try to control the story of why and how we got here. Why are we so lost?
I don’t know the answer, but my intuition tells me it has something to do with stars and our slow journey away from paying attention to their light. Basking in their brilliance, there is no illusion about what we are as compared to the vastness of the cosmos. We are small, mortal, and in the presence of something undoubtedly divine when we gaze upon the stars in the clear night sky. They are our oldest ancestors, something that, I believe, was less discovered and more likely proved after thousands of years of knowing this to be true. We know these things intuitively. That’s why our Gods always live in the sky.
This universe works on a dimensionality and time scale that we as human beings will never understand. The further we divorce ourselves from facing the mysteries of existence, the further we get from understanding what can be understood about existence. The longer I look at this screen, the further away from truth I get. The same goes for you.
Go outside. Look at the stars.
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