Older, but no wiser
Andy Borrows' musings on life and all its confusion, contradictions, richness and opportunities
Monday, August 15, 2005
Wednesday August 10 2005
Oh, to be able to see all of the time, and not only in those moments when sight seems like a new gift and every vision enthralls! To see with heart and mind and soul as well as with eyes. To see as Annie Dillard saw “the tree with lights in it”
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
But wouldn’t it be too distracting? How would eyes ever pay attention to the paid work of hands if they were forever distracted by the dance of light and shade, colour and shape? How would mind stay true to its allotted straight and narrow course when so many tantalising diversions present themselves, inviting exploration? How would soul remain aloof, detached, refraining from interference with the necessary tasks of hands and mind, restraining itself from leaping in recognition at meeting with a kindred spirit?
If we could see all the time, we’d find ourselves in a world surrounded by sources of delight – but we might neglect those necessary activities that support and sustain us in the longer term. Office meetings might be spent in earnest meaning-of-life dialogue or simply engaging with our colleagues true presence; car journeys would take three times as long – or even never reach their destination – I’d be forever pulling over to pay full attention to a view – evening sun across a field of stubble, paintbox yellow of oilseed rape against an inky black sky; city life would slow to a lazy snail’s crawl as travellers’ tales are shared. But mundane practical matters like avoiding driving into a ditch, or into the back of the car in front, dictate that we have to curb the distracting effects of these delights; we have to filter them, reduce the brightness of their colours, set our selves – that part of us that knows and recognises the true value and importance of such things – at a distance, in order that conventional apparent progress may be made in the matters of daily living.
The lessons that teach us how to create these filters begin early – who hasn’t been scolded for gazing out of the school classroom window, supposedly daydreaming? “He’s a dreamer” they say in despair – but shouldn’t dreaming be something to celebrate? Instead, we’re told “Pay attention”. But we were paying attention – real attention. Just not to the same matter as that demanded by the teacher. So we drag our attention away from delights and learn how important it is to pay attention only to those matters dictated by others, and cease to listen to our own voices, the voices of heart and soul.
Somewhere between childhood and maturity (whatever that is) two strands of development have unfolded. One: discovering delight, wonder, awe, amazement, thrill, stimulation in the world around – in diversity of life, of people, of form, of beauty; the other: a hidden, unacknowledged, counter-current which teaches that such responses to the world are trivial, unimportant – or of lesser importance than our grand affairs, childish – and childish becomes a derogatory term, although to be child-like in our appreciation is perhaps to be closer to manifesting our true selves that we’ll often get in our adult lives
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
And because this second, shadow strand is unacknowledged as a culturally imposed process of “development”, driven without question or choice, we believe the world-view encouraged by it to be true; we believe in this upside-down set of values we’ve learned; we believe that beauty, truth, innocence are all incidental to the ‘real life’ instead of being the very stuff of Life itself.
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
We’ve learned well how to mask, how to hide, how to distance ourselves from those deep, instinctive and above all natural responses. Life becomes so completely filled withal the mundane matters – which, to be fair, we had no choice but to take note of; matters such as setting up home, bringing up a family, establishing a foothold in the world – that instinctive appreciation never got much of a look-in, so that now, when the immediate pressures of living no longer occupy every waking moment, no longer take their place in the front line of the forces opposing is on our daily battles of existence; now, when finally I want to wake up again to those moments of innocence, it can take a deliberate effort.
But thankfully, it’s not impossible. Sometimes the sheer splendour of the world shouts so joyously it can’t be ignored. Other times, that splendour is more coy, shrinking itself to hide under a stone, waiting for me to turn it over; it disguises itself, say in a wave breaking on the shore, the sound of wind in the treetops, sunlight on water, shadows cast by the moon. On those days, unless I look deliberately and hard, I’ll like as not miss it. But the splendour is there all the same, whether I see it or not.
O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
Becoming attuned to splendour, to natural energy – almost, it feels, to the boundless joy of the universe – may turn out to be the same thing as being fully present, being fully aware, living now. Paying full attention with all the senses, including those we don’t count as physical, the senses with which we appreciate the metaphysical – oh, I sense that if I could but do that I’d see the world ever exploding in a riot of wonder!
Perhaps that’s why we develop these shutters and filters, only allowing ourselves to see dimly how astonishingly alive, how spectacularly vibrant, how overflowing with abundance of things of wonder this world is. If we could really see all of that, we’d be dazzled, blinded, overwhelmed. We’d see God.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
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