15 April 2010

What Makes the World Go Round (or at least forward)

As an earlier generation of Chinese might have put it,

"Interesting times, no?"

Certainly the Great World, the world of our great global movers and shakers, does seem to have made some rather interesting twists and turns since 9-15-08. And yet - for all our lingering doubts about capitalism in some quarters (and mounting fears of socialism in others) - somehow I don't think the world has changed all that much since the eve of 9-11. At least not in spirit. Which is to say, our hyper-American Faith in Progress may be down: it is by no means out.

Even now I imagine most of us know a large or small number of people who are self-consciously modern-minded, forward-looking, full of robust confidence in the human future. The sort of folks - perhaps your typical subscriber to The Economist? - whose favorite adage might be "No matter how bad our new things may get - or how good the old ways may seem - out with the old and in with the new." Or even

"If it ain't broke, fix it anyway. And if it gets more difficult or complicated to use, or breaks down more often, why, so much the better! Life should always be a learning experience. And nothing can be learned - and, more importantly, nobody improved - apart from the stimulus of constant, hectoring challenge."

Maybe, too, we all are a bit like that nowadays, in one or another situation. Yet there is one thing I've noticed about the people in whom this mindset is most deeply entrenched - and even about myself, when I get on my particular high horse of progress and so-called improvement. Whether they mean to or not, ultramodern-minded people often have a way of priding themselves on how sure and firm a grip they have on things going on around them. And in particular on certain fast-moving things which may have escaped the grip of their less well-focused, and hence less efficiently grasping, ancestors. Not, of course, that these ultramoderns haven't got heartaches and frustrations of their own. Surely no one is is more pained at the thought of something important she may have overlooked than one who tries to be hyper-efficient - who tries, in a word, to be on top of everything. And even the slowest-paced among us don't exactly like feeling out of the loop.

Nor have recent events made things any easier for the conscientiously busy. The recent decade was one that placed a high premium on round-the-globe, round-the-clock efficiency. Indeed, it may well have been as savagely modernizing - as worshipful of Progress at any (human) Cost - as any decade the West has known in our lifetimes. And yet somehow our Western "grip on things" seems more tenuous today than at any time since 1979. Certainly the world is at least as volatile and combustible a place as it was on the eve of Khomeini, and Thatcher, and the Soviet Afghan invasion.

And so I wonder, in light of certain epic-scale events of the past decade, if it isn't high time we ultramoderns took a closer look at a Certain Quiet Something perhaps easier to miss than ever in these loud and busy days. Something whose value we do not just take for granted, but the mere thought of which may make our ultramodern eyes roll, or mist, or even glaze, over. And yet something conceivably far more practical - could we but see it for Itself - maybe even more hard-headed, and nuts-and-bolts, than all our most globally seamless movements of capital and labor. And even perhaps, in its Way, more visionary, and hopeful, than our most far-seeing, globe-straddling marketing plans.

I mean, of course, that exquisitely balanced vision, that preternaturally attentive, uncannily proportionate enjoyment and enhancement of, well, most any creature, that we call - for want of a more generous word - love. My question is simply this: Whatever it may be, this "love" thing, which softly beckons us to appreciate, and makes us extremely hesitant to despise or coddle, anyone or anything - what if it's all so much more "hands-on" and "get-things-done" than we think? Love may not exactly be what makes the human world go round. But can we be excused for thinking there are times - perhaps especially lately? - when it's all that keeps life from jumping track completely? Suppose that, in our anxiousness to get down to the rudiments, the brass tacks, the profit-and-loss of things, we've been ignoring the real rudiments? And those almost right, as it were, from Genesis - from the Beginning?

The problem, it seems to me, with our modern placement of love in the scheme of things is that we've got both its genesis and its exodus backwards. For the most part we see Life as emerging out of non-living things; and then Love in its turn as emerging - however fitfully (and often by starts that seem to go nowhere) - out of things that are alive. And all under the mildly amused gaze of some cosmic watchmaker who has since gone on to become the World's most fawned-upon absentee landlord. No wonder we feel - even we Jews and Christians - like we're more or less on our own. And that love meanwhile is this frail candle-flame we've lit, that any minor gust of wind might all of a sudden extinguish a la Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana. But what if it all really happened in reverse? What if it was Love, and Love alone, that made and makes even non-loving creatures to live at all? That sober-minded, no-nonsense fellow on his BlackBerry over there, who sees neither use nor point to love in any form be it gas liquid or solid, who shudders at the thought of extending himself for any one or thing other than, perhaps, some global system or other brilliant human creation. Suppose it were to be revealed that his very life, his very health and soundness of body and mind, had all depended - in some immeasurable, untraceable Way - on love all along? Maybe even on the patience and prayers of "little people" to whom he seldom gave more than an occasional, and that a usually disparaging, thought? Again, what if it's Life, and only Life, that makes even non-living creatures to exist at all? Suppose, I mean, that both these things - this "Love" and this "Life" - should exist imbeddedly and inseparably from one Being, one Consciousness, one Life? And that it's precisely this One Life, and this One only, who gives to living things not only a heart of love but the very breath of life? What might this Life be like, if by chance we were to run into him along some quiet woodland-path? Would he be, with respect to the things he's made, Someone more in the nature of a watchmaker, or an engineer, or a software innovator? Or even a personal trainer? Or would he be Somebody more after the manner of a gardener? (Albeit one whose plants exhibit the very strangest powers, both of mobility and of resistance to nurturance.)

Yes, I know, we do have these Scriptures - we Jews, Christians, etc - on whose guidance through these denser hedges we could rely more often. But they, read closely, offer small comfort to worshipers of the personal-coach god, or the god-who's-left-us-to-our-own-devices. They seem not only quite firmly to assert the truth of the main points I've outlined, but no less firmly to deny the truth of the opposite cosmic model. But then we don't really much open our Bibles on these matters, do we? At least not in the matter of how things - and people - really work. Or where, as they say, rubber meets road.

Then again Man knows we've been wrong before. Suppose all this time we've been watching the entire Progress of Things - both existent and living - in reverse; in sort of a mirror, as it were. How might that have come about? If much of what we're seeing is but the reflection, or reverse-image, of evolution, is it because we've haven't yet traveled far enough from our point of origin? Or is it that we keep "sliding back" into some primeval slime of ignorance and beastliness from which, however far we may seem to range or roam, we have no hope of permanent exit? Or, rather, is it because of our steadily, progressively growing distance from our real Origin? And not just distance physical, but moral, intellectual, spiritual?

But now further suppose that, despite appearances to the contrary, we have been all the while growing away from, rather than growing towards, the One who made us. How do we - you and I - reverse direction? How do we turn away from the mirror so as to face the world at our backs? How do we get and maintain a sufficient handle on things, so that we may stay focused on the world as it is - the world as Love has made it, and not we ourselves? And what part do you suppose Love may yet play, in helping us to regain both the firmness and the efficiency of our grip?