17 February 2010

A Future Even We Can't Contain

The older I get, and the more I see how little I know even of myself, the harder it is for me to believe in the shallowness of anything. Including people. Of course people try to make themselves shallow, but it really is very hard work; there is always so much more to us than either we or any one else could ever quite get a handle on. And what could be more difficult than to pretend one has no past, and no future, other than those which can be remembered and shaped, and manipulated, at will? Nor is it evident that any Grand Human Future we create, however immense and commanding, could ever contain all that we lost children of Adam need. Much less the all that we are.

But the hardest and most dangerous work of all may be the pretense that we humans are only what we make of ourselves, and nothing more: that there are in us no hidden reserves - or reservoirs? - which even we are unable to enter and pollute, because they are accessible only to the grace of God and the prayers of others. And those, even as we sleep.

Nor is it just human beings I'm thinking of here. More and more it seems to me there are hidden depths - hidden meanings and resonances - in everything that makes up our world: in all that we call natural, as well as in the things we think and make and do. Much of what we call "bland" may even be a kind of shallowness. We say, for example, that a food has no taste when perhaps what we mean is that its taste lacks depth. "Memory" might be a still better word. In what, after all, does the richness of food lie, if not in its power to remind us of other tastes, and even of the experiences and countless other associations that surrounded them? And what bland creatures even we humans become, when we are cut off from the depths of our own selves: - depths that lie beyond, and often threaten to overwhelm, the shores of the worlds we typically live in - the carefully projected futures, and reconstructed pasts, that make up our most customized images of ourselves and each other. As if there were not in each one of us another kind of Soil, that is best irrigated by the waters of an unknown past, and most expectant of the rains of an unimaginable future. Just think of the blandness - the "sterility", as we often call it - of the things we make and build, when we presume to create with only our conscious minds, and in particular with our planning, calculating, executing minds. It is as if we were separating ourselves from something. But what?

It may be that what lends savor, and sweetness, and fire to our lives is precisely this strange, deeply flowing current of memory and association: this haunting of a Past, and longing for a Future, that are expressly not of our own making. Or perhaps even of our own understanding. That hardly means that they haven't been made, and understood, long beforehand. Nor does it necessarily mean this Past and this Future are such things as lie permanently beyond our human knowing. Indeed, perfect as the natural bent of our brains may be for all the ambitious things we plan yet to do, isn't it written somewhere that our very minds shall need straightening, or (to use the Pauline phrase) renewal?
Yet I believe there is nothing more exasperating to our present "Cainite," let's-get-on-with-it minds than this imbeddedness in our lives - one might almost say in our blood - of something for which we can scarcely find words that make sense, much less rational uses and purposes. Embarrassed by we know not what, we chafe and rebel. Cain-like, we say "Once and for all let us have done with the 'sins' and false starts of the past, and go on to make ourselves a future we can be proud of." And who could blame us? Who doesn't love a second or third chance after a bad start? Search the Scriptures from now till Judgement: I doubt that you'll find a more heavyweight example of an American-style Comeback Kid - and all by his own bootstraps! - than Adam's firstborn son.

And yet how easily does one generation's lightning comeback become the next generation's lengthening shadow. And sometimes exceedingly violent shadow - at least if we are to believe the ensuing chapters of Genesis. We never mean it that way, but somehow it happens. Could it be simply that we're not free enough yet? or not yet powerful or commanding enough? But for some reason, the more we try to command and contain the future, the more we create oppressive pasts from which we - or at least our children, or theirs - are continually trying to escape. Indeed any human future "liberated" from its past is always an oppressive one, because it is cut off from the very means by which it can know itself. Just as you or I would be, cut off from our own depths. That is why no revolution ever really works in the ways we'd like, because it is rooted in that same dictatorial impulse against which our humanness itself is in perennial revolt: the impulse to "quarantine" the past so that it won't infect the present; and then to contain what's left of the future within conscious human boundaries and parameters. Our difficulty is that the future, like the past, is an ocean; and we try to make it a pond or lagoon which we can drain and refill whenever we choose. And then we wonder how the occasional leviathan or other monster still manages to slip into our pipes.

Funny, too, how these conformable futures we make have a way of making us conform, sometimes even at the price (as we're discovering nowadays) of our own humanity. But even if we humans could somehow become "perfectly" adapted to systems wholly of our own devising, the fact that we can "create" proves nothing about the durability of our works. Again I repeat: The biggest challenge of any humanly-contained future is not how to create it, but rather how to enclose and secure it against outside interference. Even if only in our dreams and hauntings, there remains the risk of one coming in from Somewhere outside all our wisest calculations, to reveal our self-made paradises for the perditions they are. Or to bring forth out of our self-made miseries an Eden beyond what the purest innocents among us could dream. The truth is, though we try our damnedest to be god-like, we have yet to invent any future that is effectively God-proof. And, again, one never can be sure who else might slip in in the meantime.

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