Monday, December 12, 2011


Of the dyads that saints and mystics use to try to explain their visions, two of the most basic are cold/hot and dark/light. Too cold or too hot will kill you. Too dark or too light will not, though they tend to be parsed out as darkandcold and hotandlight. Recently there’s been talk about planets like earth that might shelter life in the sense that we know it. The most recently discovered seems to be about seventy degrees most of the time, which means there’s water -- an essential for life. The sun is fainter but the planet is closer to it than earth is to the sun and it has a nice round orbit so the seasons would be evened out. The planet is 2.4 times as big as ours, so the gravity would be a bit stronger.

The deal breaker is this: no surface. There’s no evidence that any ground has formed in what might be a planet of slush that thickens as one goes deeper. What a terrific metaphor for thought on the planet Earth! What an echo of the many creation stories that say this planet was all water until some creature (I favor the muskrat) or some God-hand, plunged to the bottom and brought up a handful of dark muck to make the first island. Then said, “Let there be light.” Or maybe the order was reversed.

"In less than 20 years, we have gone from not knowing if any other planets exist in the universe, to being able to look out at the night sky and realize that essentially any star we can see has at least one planet, and a good number of those are likely to be habitable," said Alan Boss. "That is a revelation that has not yet dawned on the general public, and even astronomers are having their minds blown when they think about it."

"This discovery shows that we Homo sapiens are straining our reach into the universe to find planets that remind us of home," Marcy said. "We are almost there."

So we’re back to the moment when the Europeans’ sailing skills forced them to realize that there were other lands with other ways and their new lens making had also made them realize that they were not the center of the galaxy or the universe or anything else except the belief that THEY were the Center, the Way, the Truth. Yet it was their ability to see, to use scientific methods, that had displaced them from the center. They were beholders carrying the terrible burden of thinking they were the only beholders.

In similar fashion, humans are the death-dealers who realize that we will ALL die, regardless of our beholdings or truths or virtues. And this is an even heavier burden for some, though it removes the load from others who had been struggling with this life, much less some prolongation or return to misery. In the Christian world religion is often seen as a way of escaping death and certainly one can be careful and prudent enough to avoid it for a lifetime. Other cultures don’t worry about death so much, and maybe therefore don’t worry about avoiding it as much as we do. Just accept. Our mania for health studies and secrets squats on the news every day.

Since I was a minister for a decade, one would expect me to have come to terms with death by now. I suppose maybe I have to some degree -- certainly more than city dwellers who think chickens are extruded from some machine. But I don’t like the terms I’ve slipped into. I still very occasionally perform a memorial for someone who has no church or minister. “Perform” is the operative. There is protocol, which varies a great deal from one place to another, one class to another, one tradition to another. Mostly I seem able to say things that are helpful by using the lives and material culture of the person but I’m never secure in what the sequences and “manners” ought to be. The mortician is a good safety net, but one hates to offend even in little ways.

One of the advantages of having friends all around the planet is that someone is always awake somewhere and might chime in empathetically. My friend Aads de Gide, the Rotterdam poet and philosopher, emailing as I wrote, remarked that when he discovered a hanging suicide, he was very orderly and efficient about handling it. (He is a Taoist and psychiatric nurse.) Sliding over into that state of coping can be so marked that one can actually feel the body changing, blood going different places, mind separating into parts, body chemistry shifting. It is clearly an evolved survival advantage, and yet it leaves a residue of feeling and a lot of questions to be answered. In time, those must be dealt with in some fashion, perhaps through religion, maybe through the liturgies and litanies that are supplied by a long tradition or maybe by philosophical thrashing on paper.

I live next door to a Baptist church that has seen a lot of renewal lately. It is on a corner lot. All three other corners are occupied by empty houses, one because the occupants go south for the winter and the other because the occupants died of old age and the estates have not been settled. When I get up in the night, I check the neighborhood through the window and was surprised to see all the lights on in the church at 3:30AM. The minister’s vehicle was out front. It’s a little early to be working on a Christmas sermon and he lives sixty miles away.

If I were the sermon writer, I would remark on the Christian figure of a couple in Bethlehem managing to have a new infant in a time when soldiers could come to the door, demand a baby, and kill it -- simply because an authority had decreed it. Of course, it’s a mythological plot device repeated again and again and we suppress most of it, keeping the “cute” and decorative aspects. We don’t like thinking about what our soldiers do or -- worse -- what our predator drones do without even risking soldiers. We are a dissociated culture that searches for other planets before we have figured out how to manage this one.

With new snow on the ground and a full moon cruising the sky, this night was not so dark. The lit windows of the Baptist church throw yellow squares. But there was no congregation. The moment floats in ambiguity. Snow is not a trustworthy surface.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

On the other hand, those of us who are lifelong readers of science fiction are already used to making the conceptual leap necessary for viewing the Universe as more inhabited than we thought. Even though we remain rather narcissistic as a species overall, there have always been outward-lookers.