Undone

Gnarled roots
Embed
In stubborn earth,
Gentle shoots
In search of light
Break
Through clean and brittle surfaces.

Humankind,
Tenuously rooted,
Resisting mere familiarity,
Subsists
Unadorned
As slender thread,
Or barest recognition.

Birth, integrity
And death,
Mere vanity
Till knowingly
Embraced
Within
The depth of our estrangement.

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Met

 

Like a barren landscape

words strewn upon empty space

stare blankly.

 

Bare scratchings

to link us

across time and space.

 

The printed page awaits

the hesitant breath

of fragile human attention.

 

Threadbare presence

suspended

on black and white finality.

 

As words come into focus

I am met

by a world other than my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Belief

A rather neat way of summing up the distinction between belief and non-belief occurred to me. A believer is someone who lives with ready answers. An agnostic is someone who dismisses the answers. An atheist is someone who dismisses the questions. All these however take us no further than the humanly created constructs which belief as an orientation to life is surely at variance with.

In the New Testament ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ are used interchangeably to translate the same Greek word ‘pistis’, which refers to confidence or trust in something beyond what can adequately be envisaged. The emphasis is not on faith itself but on the object of faith, there is indeed an important sense in which faith is always inadequate in relation to its object.

Problems arise therefore when we talk of faith as a noun, ‘the faith’ as if it were part of our cultural furniture, or indeed something existing in its own right. Equally, problems arise when we overstress it as a verb, as if belief were something which we had it in our power to do or not to do.

In various ways we find that faith, in its all too human sense, is in danger of turning in on itself – becoming in effect its own justification. This I think touches on a weakness which is basic to all faiths – and indeed to all forms of spiritual practice. In times of insecurity like our own the temptation is is to look to faith, or to whatever method by which we seek to cultivate our humanity, not so much as a way to enhance our sensitivity or vulnerability to the world but rather as a way to insulate ourselves from it.

If one is sufficient unto oneself, or aspires to be so, then that aim precludes any other. On the other hand without at least a minimal inner balance one will, almost involuntarily, be self-obsessed.

Such thoughts have occupied me following a long period of reflection, coming to terms with painful experiences in the past. Having come through this seemingly saner and more balanced than before, I now find this sense of sanity to be deceptive. Any understanding I now have seems of little value apart from the need for a constant re-sensitising to the living experience from which it arose.

Is this what the Buddha meant by describing suffering as a fundamental characteristic of existence? Is it something perhaps we do not so much grow out of, but rather grow into? I do not know, but as a Christian I do find such questions illuminating.

I find myself increasingly wary of tying in too readily this more pervasive sense of suffering, implicit throughout much of the Bible, with the concept of sin. To understand our need of God solely in terms of our awareness of sin would, it seems to me, be a serious mistake. Rather I am inclined to see this need as implicit in a much more radical way in the very nature of our awareness and participation in the world about us.

Trust

Like a car engine running in neutral the human mind runs more smoothly when not engaged. Unlike the engine however the mind lacks any equivalent of a gearbox by which engagement might be simply and efficiently achieved. We appear to lack indeed any reliable way of determining whether we are engaged at all, as opposed to merely thinking, speaking or acting a part. So long as the part we play is a recognised one, one that does not impact too badly on other ‘parts’, no one is likely to be any the wiser.

There is a Sufi story about the mullah Nasruddin who late one night was observed searching for something beneath a lamp post. A helpful passer-by seeking to be of assistance asked what it was he was looking for and where exactly he dropped it. The mullah replied that he was looking for his keys which he had dropped in his house across the road. ‘Then why are you looking here?’ responded the passer-by, ‘Because here there is more light!’ replied the mullah.

A Zen master when told this story replied bluntly, ‘Looking is the key’. On one level this might be taken to mean that the process of cultivating awareness has its own rationale independent of what occasions it. But the contrast between the dark of the home and the light of the street lamp is surely not entirely irrelevant. We associate ignorance with darkness or confusion and awareness with light or clarity, yet awareness is not identical with clarity any more than it is incompatible with confusion. It is on the contrary the difficult human situations more often than not that remind us of our ignorance and of our profound need for awareness and compassion. Such things may at times be too difficult to look at directly, yet any spiritual path purporting to be its own rationale and not in need of such prompts would itself be bordering on madness. A subtle balance is called for, which perhaps is the point of the story.

However seemingly successful we may be on the one hand, or however attuned to the needs of others on the other hand, the fact is for most of us that pain, misunderstanding and confusion are nearer home than we are prepared to acknowledge. The public sphere where one can play a recognised part, where one has so to speak an alibi for being and from which one can safely make one’s own charitable contribution, seems by contrast less threatening. In a community by contrast, even a very small or tenuous one, the are no alibis – one is ether present or one is not. Whatever part we play is premised on the fact we are a part. Our search for wholeness is not an escape from this.

We fool ourselves if we see the fundamental need human beings have for each other as existing merely for the nurture of individuals – and therefore something to be transcended once the aspired for wholeness has been achieved; for a community that exists merely for the sake of itself and its members is a dubious thing.

These incomplete thoughts have been prompted in part by learning just recently of a particular society, seemingly loose but held together by an implicit sense of purpose, whose meetings took place in cheap London cafes around the late 1950′s. Over the last thirty years or so I have met various former members; in some cases I was aware of a connection existing between them, in other cases not. To some of these I am profoundly indebted, through them I am indebted also to the person whose own psychic trauma and struggle for meaning brought them together.

Many more prestigious societies have led nowhere. Perhaps it was the sheer loose-endedness of those individuals and their awareness of the uselessness of any form of pretence, perhaps it was the implicit task they set themselves, or perhaps a sense of the precariousness of the human condition; whatever it may have been their honesty and commitment laid the basis for something that continued long after they went their separate ways.

 

 

 

 

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Value

If asked whether I value life my answer is an instinctive ‘yes’ – if on the other hand I am asked whether I value my own life I am not so sure. Certainly I would have a strong gut reaction were someone to come at me with a knife, but that is not the same thing as valuing my life - for in other ways I am certainly not as careful with it as I might be.

This seems odd at first glance, for the only instance of life of which I have inside knowledge is my own, everything else is known by way of this; a fact which would seem to put me firmly at the centre. And yet that is not generally the way I experience it, least of all in those moments when it actually feels as if my own life does have value. It is on the contrary the instinctive response, the ‘sense’ of life as something larger than myself, rather than the reasoned extrapolation from my own experience that feels right.

The double meaning of ‘sense’, what ‘makes’ sense and what is palpably felt, is perhaps significant in this regard. To speak of something as transcending one’s own experience is more often than not to venture into abstraction, suggesting something that exists over against us. But that is not how we think of life. Rather it seems we can think or speak of it authentically only to the degree we are immersed in it. However that sense of immersion in life is not something we think as such; nor is it to be identified with anything with which we may be visibly part of such as a religion, a culture, a nation or whatever. However integral such things may be to our humanity they are as capable of fostering fear and delusion as of reconciliation and growth.

It would be nice if there were some abstract criteria for distinguishing between what is true and false in human ideology, culture, religion etc. But any such criteria would itself unavoidably be ideological, religious or the expression of a particular culture – and would tend as a result to become a substitute for the very thing it sought to promote, namely trust. While institutions may foster it, trust happens fundamentally between people. Our mistakes, our misunderstandings, our ingrained differences and our ability to face them are, no less than our ideals and hopes, integral to the process of understanding each other.

‘Value’ appears to be a difficult word because implicit in it is the question of trust cannot be reduced to a particular form of words or actions. Apart from a trivial commercial use of the word we tend in practice to ignore the singular noun in favour of the plural. ’Values’ by contrast are amenable to clear definition; in their approved institutional form they can be quantified and ticked off. They generally require a minimum of understanding between people, by the same token they also minimise misunderstanding. To misunderstand someone one must after all venture outside the box and actually acknowledge them.

The concept of ‘value’ seems to me to go to the heart of things in a way other words do not. Its abrupt singularity may serve as a reminder of the danger of reducing to quantitative, culturally bound and politically convenient terms issues that point rather to the need for a larger human horizon.

The question of the degree to which we collectively value human life and the extent to which we can subordinate our various belief systems to this aim seems to me to be a real one, beyond the so called ‘clash of civilisations’ which may have temporarily grabbed our attention. There are some for example who attribute the relative peace between the major powers over the last sixty years or so to our capacity to wipe each other out. And in this regard perhaps one cannot entirely blame smaller nations which, desiring to benefit from this new era of peace, seek to acquire such weaponry for themselves. To maintain the credibility of such a threat however without ever using it is not just a precarious balance but a fundamentally dehumanising one. In order for it unthinkable it must first of all be thinkable. At the same time we need to be able to clinically distance ourselves from the thought.

When lying or something perilously close to it becomes integral to the structure of thought we are in trouble. At such times it seems to me that basic human instincts might just have something profound to say to us. A small but hopeful sign of our capacity to listen to ourselves and each other and begin to think in more qualitative terms is that economists are increasingly beginning to realise that money is not necessarily the prime motivating factor in human life, that questions of meaning, wellbeing and happiness are no less important.

A scarcity of resources is something we could quite well go to war over; it is also the sort of thing that might just bring us to our senses – for one of the paradoxes of human life is that a surplus of goods will as likely as not foster individual greed, whereas a scarcity of goods frequently brings people together. The crucial question is whether what brings us together is authentic value and trust or on the contrary an attempt to find an external scapegoat for our predicament.

 

 

 

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The Hearer and the Heard

There is an implicit ambiguity or gap in all human communication between what is intended and what is heard. The extent of the gap is in direct proportion to the human significance of what is said. Purely empirical information, a physical description, a recipe, historical data or a weather forecast, leave little room for doubt and not much need of discussion. To communicate the significance of an historical event, the experience of a shared meal or of being exposed and helpless in a monsoon is another matter entirely.

If on the other hand the words are not a description at all but rather a more direct form of personal address, such as the words, ‘I trust you’, or ’I love you’, then the gap is greater still. No two people mean the same thing by these words. And yet the ambiguity is not of a conceptual nature, as it might be were we discussing them in the abstract. Rather it is a human ambiguity arising from the fact that the meaning goes beyond what the words can contain. The meaning is implicit less in the words themselves than in the context in which they are uttered. One might even say they arise from that context itself. The ambiguity consists in the fact that the words are strung so to speak on a very different thread from that conditioning in terms of which which we generally make sense of our lives..

What is true of personal experience is also true of the historical. It is upon this tenuous thread, this trust, rather than on our seemingly solid yet actually flimsy institutional arrangements, that our collective experience is strung. Religious texts if read outside their institutional frame can be powerful reminders of this. There are some texts indeed which almost deny such framing in the first place, the words of Ecclesiastes and some of the major prophets in the Hebrew Bible for example and the words of Jesus in the New Testament.

Almost, but not quite. It is only thanks to the fact that these words were institutionally framed that we are able to hear them today. It may be that faith alone is no longer enough to hear them aright, that a certain ‘creative unbelief’, a more conscious embracing of the ambiguity and risk inherent in human communication is required. A Muslim saint of the early 19th century, Ahmad ibn Idris, taught that there are three sources of the contemplative life, the Holy Qur’an, the Sunnah (or sayings of the Prophet)  – and ‘la adri’, meaning ‘I do not know’.

 

4 thoughts on “The Hearer and the Heard

  1. Talya

    You definitely have something here.

    Poetry seems to work by a careful balancing of the level of the ambiguity of its words.

    Music and art can both also take advantage of this indefinability to reach out and touch people more strongly than, say, a shopping list or a spreadsheet!

    I think, in a way, that it is only thanks to the fact that any words are institutionally framed that we are able to hear them at all. In fact, words themselves belong to the twin institutions of the language that they belong to, and the community who uses them.

    I wish so much that I were an individual, and in some respects I am, but without the institutions that I belong to and take part in, nobody would be able to hear my voice, and I would not even have come into existence at all in the first place.

    Anything I do seems invalid unless it is in some context, but even more than that, I can’t even exist without a context, so if I don’t contextualise, and conceptualise in a normal and understandable manner, my life appears as just so much nonsense to everyone else.

    As in fact that last sentence might! …

    … but it is at that edge that new institutions are forged, because the edge is ever changing, therefore redefinition is essential to produce institutions that work well.

    So I agree with your final three essentials – a working current institution, friendly communication and discussion, and an open-ness to the Unknown.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Post author

      The wish to be an individual goes deep in our society, as does distrust of institutions. And yet without institutions and the implicit trust we place in them the very idea of an ‘individual’ and the system of rights and obligations on which it is precariously perched is mere fiction. So I agree with you, in spite of the slightly anarchic element that may have come through in what I wrote. I do however see the implicit trust we place in institutions as different from the formal trust. The latter tends to be defined by the institution itself whereas the former pertains to the wider human purpose it is there to serve – it is expressed not so much verbally as in the quality of life it nurtures and sustains.

      I would see language and community as pertaining more to the inner or implicit dimension of institutions which in their formal manifestation are known variously as nation, state, religion etc. The latter constitute the external architecture so to speak whose function consists less in the beautiful spectacle it may provide from without than in the nature of that ‘inner space’ which it sustains within. However, as the external architecture of our lives becomes ever more grandiose I must confess that the inner space begins by contrast to feel decidedly cramped. It is for this reason that the idea of a larger uncontained space, even if it be mere wilderness, is one that occasionally tempts me. Perhaps that is not too far removed from what you mean by ‘openness to the Unknown’.

      Reply

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Commuting 3

‘Why are you reading?’ This question asked by a character in a Hitchcock film crept surreptitiously into my mind early one morning some weeks ago as I sat on the train on the way into Charing Cross with the Metro paper open in front of me. Mind numbingly bland unlike its infuriatingly self righteous parent paper, the Daily Mail, it does have the dubious advantage of being free. So I fill my mind with ‘stuff’ because it is free? I tried to dodge the question by telling myself I was just giving it a quick scan before going on to read the rather more concise news digest the i, offshoot of the Independent. Yet this little ritual has repeated itself in virtually identical form for years now; harmless no doubt, but were I to be blown up or have a heart attack I’m not sure I’d like that to be my last moment. I admit I still do it, but rather more briefly. When my number is up I would rather go with more edifying thoughts in mind.

But is this not a little smug? Is not burying oneself in a book or a quality newspaper just as much a way of shutting oneself off from others – a way of seeking refuge in one’s own virtual space, secure in the comforting notion that one’s thoughts are indeed edifying? True, one does indeed need to switch off to now and then; but this need not be a question of deliberate exclusion, more a matter of directing one’s attention to what seems more rather than less relevant. There is no reason to believe that the person sitting next to me has anything whatever to say, he is switched off just as I am – a fact I find rather reassuring. The person sitting behind me may have quite a lot to say, but he is talking into his mobile, not to me.

By absorbing myself in the printed word on the other hand I am not actually shut off but rather connected, albeit in a passive sort of way. I am attending to an account of human life, fictional or otherwise, by someone who for whatever reason is or was keen to be heard. It is strange to use the word ‘heard’ here, but in a sense I do find myself ‘listening’, though not in a way that prevents me from taking in what is going on around me. And there is something quite characteristically human about this. Before the advent of the written word it would no doubt have been the spoken word reverberating one’s my mind. For it is in the nature of human beings to internalise their relatedness to others; our stories are interweaved and it is by way of consciously engaging with this interweaving with others, whether they be physically present or not, that we come to know them – and of course ourselves.

So I find myself on a journey with people with whom I am seemingly not engaged in any way at all. Yet their presence is not unimportant. To be with others is part of what it means to commute. It is a passive presence but real nonetheless. We are not unaware of each other, but our attention is engaged elsewhere. We all share in making one of a variety of uses of the journey that are not unconnected; as a buffer zone between home and work, as a space in which we psychologically change gear, or perhaps as a chance to recharge our spiritual batteries.

Our presence together is passive, but it is a shared passivity. It would be broken if someone played loud music or started shouting. Indeed any sort of music in this context would once have been regarded as anti-social. With the advent of portable audio equipment however this is no longer the case. In listening in this way however one is in quite a real sense shutting oneself off from others; by putting on headphones one is not just directing one’s attention elsewhere but actually soundproofing oneself against one’s environment, and immersing oneself, to use a Monty Python phrase, in ‘something completely different’.

By doing this something implicit in the nature of hearing is lost. Whereas seeing is by its very nature directional and has the capacity to focus both on the near and the very far, hearing is less focused and rather more all embracing; it is also much more tied in with our immediate environment. The viewer can separate themselves from what is seen in  a way the hearer cannot separate themselves from what is heard. Perhaps because of this element of control seeing can take on a slightly more threatening aspect. The words ‘I see you’ have a very different connotation from the words ‘I hear you’. The former expression implies directly facing or confronting the other person’; the latter implies acknowledging the presence of the other more sympathetically, open to their viewpoint not merely one’s own.

In reading one is first of all ‘seeing’, that is to say one is directing one’s attention in a certain way. But to the degree I am fully attending, not merely scanning, I am putting myself in the presence not just of words in the abstract but of particular words addressed to me by another, that is to say I am ’hearing’. To the extent I do this I am no longer in control, I must put aside my own preconceptions and immerse myself in the point of view of the other. The volitional act of seeing is in a sense the equivalent of physically attending a meeting with another person. The double meaning of ‘attending’, both cognitive and physical is quite interesting in this respect.

The slightly worrying thing about headphones is that the act of consciously directing one’s attention appears to be minimised. The fact that it is as likely as not music rather than words one is listening to makes no difference. It seems to me that the act of attention, the act of being there, is in a subtle way short circuited. Meanwhile we are in quite a drastic way shutting ourselves off from the human presence around us.

Yet, in practice it may be the distinction is not quite so cut. Both the visual image and the written word have become so ubiquitous as almost to constitute a kind of ‘muzak’, or mood music, in their own right – so difficult to detach from that our inner dialogue is itself subtly caught up to the point that we do not know whether we are ‘hearing’ or ‘seeing’, looking ‘in’ or ‘out’, paying attention or simply lost. In immersing myself in a Kindle or an iPad or even a paper I may in fact be much more cut off than I am aware. Losing touch with what another person might actually be seeking to convey it is almost as if I myself have become part of the kaleidoscope of information, sounds and imagery in which I am unconsciously immersed. It is as if I am wearing headphones yet oblivious of the fact.

More worrying is the question of to what extent I remain sealed in this ‘mood music’ even as I arrive at work. Strange as it may seem I feel it necessary to remind myself that the journey to work is an actual physical one which I make with actual flesh and blood people. Their presence may be passive but it is real. It is a journey we make together and the presence of others, even if taken in only passively, is rather more reassuring than some of the things which I am prone to distract myself with. The derivation of the word ‘commute’, from the Latin com (with) and mutare (change) is perhaps not accidental. The presence of others, whether experienced as comforting or disconcerting, is not incidental to this journey, but in a way which perhaps we do not have adequate words to express, quite intrinsic.

 

One thought on “Commuting 3

  1. Talya

    I think the train is a more pleasant commute than the bus, for the reasons you give! – someone will often start playing loud music, or shouting! even if it is on their personal stereo it might be so loud that one can hear it from the other end of the bus, or if the shouting is just loud talking into a phone. That shared passivity is indeed precious, and easily broken. Shared activity is more difficult on transport because people don’t know each other, and may have little shared ground other than that particular physical journey, but can happen when some incident causes people to communicate! I enjoy those instances and like to get stuck in to any altercation if possible, mediating between hassled bus drivers and upset passengers!

    I agree with what you say about hearing and seeing – hearing is very much involved with one’s immediate environment.

    And I think commuting, ‘changing with’ people in that shared liminal environment, is indeed an excellent conception of what is going on. Commuting in London can be such an awful experience though that I can’t believe how people do it, and I suppose the shutting off of the visual or auditory is a way of coping, but when that extends to what could be a pleasant journey, shared quietly with others, that shutting off becomes instead an unnecessary distraction and prevents the shared silence.

    I think you have identified that connection between the inner dialogue and the shared inner dialogue. Shared media becomes shared inner dialogue, which is just as distracting and messy, but more difficult to detach from because it is shared.

    Reply

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Commuting 2

I live in an area of Beckenham known as Eden Park, slightly leafier than nearby Croydon but otherwise, despite the idyllic sounding name, a typical outer London suburb; the sort of place from whence people regularly commute. Since the business where I work operates seven days a week I also travel on weekends; a time when engineering works, staffing problems and other unexpected factors are likely to impact on one’s journey. The most curious of these impacts happened just over three weeks ago in the first Sunday of April, not as it happens April Fool’s Day – but then the idea of designating a particular day for folly and expecting it to remain safely contained therein is perhaps hoping for too much.

In view of what transpired on this particular day it is fortunate that Sunday travellers, even if they do happen to be going to work, are a much more laid back lot than their weekday counterparts; perhaps a hangover from the time when Sunday was still deemed to be a day of rest. Indeed judging from my own experience many of those of us who work on Sunday do indeed, in some dark backwater of our minds, still deem it to be so – and this may go some way toward explaining the events in question. For on this day at my local train station the South Eastern service was running ghost trains; trains that were announced and even deemed to have arrived but without any physical manifestation - or subsequent explanation.

Even the woman on the other end of the passenger helpline whom an intrepid fellow traveller was able to get through to was unaware that there was anything amiss. Their own computers were evidently also registering the coming and going of trains without actual tangible form. Only after further enquiries did this slightly perplexed woman come back with the plausible explanation that the train we were enquiring about had unexpectedly been turned around at the previous station - plausible until the next train, duly announce also failed to manifest. Most people, presumably with less pressing engagements, continued to wait at the station on the basis that it was ‘deemed’ to be functioning. I jumped onto a bus.

The curious business of deeming something to be the case when manifestly it is not is one that has often puzzled me. Concern with appearance rather than substance, or with soothing words rather than practical advice is nothing new, but it seems to me that the advent of information technology has magnified an understandable human weakness into a hardened institutional form. For an administrator sitting behind a computer with a massive array of figures at one’s disposal one inspires confidence not by questioning the data but rather by familiarising oneself with it, making sense of it and basing plans and projections upon it. It is after all on the basis of the figures and one’s seeming grasp of them that one is paid; quite possibly on a scale out of all proportion to those whose work puts them in closer touch with what is actually going on. If the worst comes to the worst and the unvarnished facts do spill out one simply feigns ignorance - and blames it on the system.

Were such indifference aimed at particular people, say an ethnic minority, handicapped people, or any other discernible group, one would of course not get away with blaming it on the system; it would be seen rather as an institutional problem – something subtly different, involving that tricky thing we call ‘ethos’. But so long as one appears even handed in one’s indifference, so long as one ticks all the right boxes, neither ethos nor ethics need ever intervene; the system shields us, victim and perpetrator alike, from reality. Which is not to say that our thoughts and feelings cease to function, on the contrary they continue to run – but in a subtly disengaged form.

These were the kind of angry, frustrated and despairing thoughts that went through my mind as I made my way to work that particular Sunday. Thoughts which I often struggle with in the course of my work, since the business I work in has itself become increasingly dysfunctional over the last ten years or so; a state of affairs one can only struggle with and raise concerns over up to a point in a context where blame is invariably placed on the system. But this was the first time a state of entrenched unreality had forcibly hit me on the way to work; a time when I confess my normal tendency is to switch off and which has in effect become for me less a journey than a buffer zone between two places, work and home, which sometimes seem to be almost on different planets from each other – to the detriment of both.

 

 

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Commuting 1

Having touched on the idea of journeying in a metaphorical sense it struck me that the nature of our actual physical journeys and the way we relate to them may have something important to say about the sort of people we are. For many of us major journeys may figure somewhere in the background. However settled we may feel there is a fair chance that some of our not so distant ancestors may have come from quite different parts of the world. There is also a fair chance, at least among those of us privileged to live in one of the more developed countries, that we ourselves at various points in our lives have undertaken major journeys – even if, thanks to the ease of modern travel, we do not think of them as such.

A journey which would as little as a hundred years ago have been experienced as a major one has become for us seemingly trivial by contrast. Not only is there the sense of the distance  having collapsed, but the standardisation of urban life means that the destination itself may hardly differ from one’s place of origin. Physically we journey more than ever; psychologically however it may be we have lost touch with a nomadic element in our nature which, even if expressed only rarely, was once symbolically quite important.

The particular journey with which the majority of us no doubt are most intimately familiar is the one we have come to refer to as ‘commuting’, from the Latin ‘com’ (with) and ‘mutare’ (change). So familiar are we with it, so integral has it become, that it may be we have become in the process quite ignorant of what we are doing. Perhaps we even prefer it that way.

Over the next two or three blogs therefore I thought this obvious yet rather elusive activity might just be worth reflecting on. In the process I will draw on my own experience and that of others – and I would of course welcome any comments from readers of this blog.

One of the more curious things I have found, and which others have also remarked on, is that the likelihood of a person arriving at his or her destination on time tends to be in direct proportion to the length of the journey. In other words the person who has further to come is more likely to arrive in good time than one who lives just around the corner. As a friend pointed out to me recently, the former ‘allows time’ whereas the latter is more inclined to think that they have it under control. It is not so much the distance as such that is the key factor, but more fundamentally our relation to time.

The expression ‘allowing’ time is itself a curious one, for time of course ‘happens’ anyway. Though not experienced in itself we comprehend time in terms of the things which happen or fail to happen within it; continuities, discontinuities, synchronicities and seeming loose ends. The person making a significant journey has some awareness that the unexpected needs to be factored in; yet having made that implicit assumption in regard to the unforeseeable it seems that most of us try to put it as far to the back our minds as we possibly can.

A friend who is normally confident of getting into central London within about half an hour found recently that it took nearly two hours; the reason being that someone had thrown themselves in front of a train. Her own train had to be reversed back and other routes were also affected. As a result of the long wait she actually talked with other passengers and reflected afterwards on how unusual this was. She was made uncomfortably aware, perhaps for the first time, the extent to which sealing onself from off others and being lost in one’s head is considered normal. It is as if we shut out the outer chaos only to create an inner one of our own. The same inner chaos that doubtless prompts some people to take their own lives - a rather blatant risk which is yet conspicuously absent from our current ‘risk assessment’ strategies; absent precisely because it cannot be quantified, but then nor perhaps can the reason for making our journey in the first place. To put it in the crudest possible terms, if someone jumps in front of a train no-one is going to get sued. Likewise providing someone turns up at work and goes through the motions of what is expected of them no-one is going to ask too many questions.

I am not of course suggesting that there are not people, psychiatrists for example, who might make it there business to quantify such things, merely that such people speak an entirely different language from those involved in public planning, health and safety, etc. Such professionals, though invariably polite and sensible, do not usually take kindly to others encroaching on their turf. Insofar however as the public and private spheres are not entirely separate, insofar that is that we have not successfully sealed ourselves off – either individually, or collectively by way of subcultures – there remains potentially quite a large area of human life as yet unclaimed by experts; an area which, should we choose to inhabit, it might go some way toward enhancing the value we attach to human life.

One of the things my friend had to evaluate was just how important her journey was and whether it was worth continuing. Perhaps in most cases we are so asleep during our journey we fail not only to consider the journey itself but also our reason for undertaking it. Some might even think of this as a stupid question; obviously we need to work go to work in order to make a living. But is that all? Sadly I have known managers who are far more concerned with people arriving on time than in the quality of the work done; the work itself having become an empty ritual. It is all too easy in such circumstances not only for the journey to become a virtual one, but also one’s own physical presence on arrival. One packs one’s briefcase but forgets to include oneself.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Commuting 1

  1. Talya

    When you said we have lost touch with a nomadic element in our nature I was wondering if you could say a bit more about that?

    Reply
    1. henry1996 Post author

      I was rather hoping that no-one would ask that question. The fact is I am not precisely sure. I could point to quite stupendous migrations in the past, to the way in which modern cities, particularly in the West, have drawn in people from all parts of the world – and to the way in which the ancestry of many of us, even of entire peoples (the English for example) is varied and tangled. None of that however, though undoubtedly related, is quite what I mean.

      What I do mean, and which might just possibly become clearer in future blogs, is that for creatures like us who seemingly like nothing more than to make sense of the world and impose orderly patterns upon it there there seems also to be a curious distrust, a sense that the value we place on things might just prove to be illusory.

      One would like to think that when one dies the kind of things one believes in and has worked towards will continue. But that is not necessarily the case. It is not just individuals who come and go in this world, but also communities, cultures, ideologies, religions and indeed entire civilisations. Whatever can be confidently quantified or defined, whatever one might pin one’s hopes on, will more than likely be shown in the long term to be provisional – if not a complete dead end.

      There is an entire biblical book on this, Ecclesiastes. This theme is also frequently alluded to in the early Arabic poets; one of the greatest of whom, Zuhayr ibn Abu Sulma, put it thus:

      I see fate as a kick from a blind camel:
      if it is a hit, you are dead;
      if a miss, you live until you are senile.

      The pre-Islamic pagan saw Time not God as the arbiter of life and death. Even today the Arabic for atheist or sceptic (‘dahri’) is derived from the word for time (‘dahr’). The author of Ecclesiastes does not put it quite so succinctly, but the view of Time rather than God as holding sway is the same: ‘One and the same fate befalls all, just and unjust alike’. (Eccles. 9:2)

      Whenever there is an uprooting of human life we have no option but to move on. Our survival depends on it, and in doing so in a sense we embrace Time. I rather think that this awareness of provisionality underlies and even precedes in a subtle way our more overt attempts to make sense of the world. I am aware that this is not remotely adequate as an answer to your question, but it is the best I can manage at the moment.

      Reply

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Nameless Path Revisited

I posted a poem rather than my usual blog last week because I found myself stuck for words. The entry before it had been difficult to write, partly because it drew on my own experience of depression and partly because it was heading for a place where words fail. Words can fail for good and bad reasons, out of despair as well as hope; and the poem, written about a year before, seemed to embody that ambiguity in quite a stark way.

It had been my intention in the present blog to move on to an equally ambiguous journey, one with which most of us have some familiarity, namely that quasi-ritualistic experience of commuting to work each morning. However, sitting on the train yesterday morning a conversation from the previous day kept reverberating in my mind. A friend happened to mention that she did not envisage having children since her ancestors had been a rather mixed lot and she seriously doubted that the line was worth continuing.

As a result I started to reflect on another journey that the poem was, I suspect, in some sense about - namely the human journey through time. By that I do not mean so much visible time for which we have tangible evidence or records, or which we can extrapolate from our existing understanding, but rather that vast invisible patchwork of relationships, chance meetings and tenuous connections extending back into time immemorial, wherein perhaps the qualitative dimension of our humanity resides. If visible time is measured and ordered, a place in which we can plan and anticipate, learn from our mistakes, form an understanding of ourselves and of each other, and within this context also make sense also of what is by contrast dis-ordered or confused – then invisible time might be described as that latent chaos of implicit connection and disconnection, being and nonbeing, too vast to make sense of, which underpins it. Within this latency it seems to me there is a desire to be which goes beyond not just the conscious mind but also beyond our instinctual desires. A desire witnessed to by the sheer beauty and fecundity of nature (ours included) which in some cases goes well beyond what is strictly necessary for survival.

I do not mean however to venture into the territory of religion, merely to point to a larger context of being which we are all I think implicitly aware of but lack adequate words to express. This larger context consists not just in the complex balancing act of the biosphere that is in fact a constant re-balancing, facilitating the emergence of ever more complex life forms; rather of more immediate relevance to us, is a comparable balancing within the human psyche itself. If one leaves aside the rules, conventions, abstract principles and the power structures that support them then the qualitative dimension of human life, that subtle realm of hard to define qulaties that make us human in the full sense, is far more tenuous, but also perhaps much more dynamic, than we normally take it for. Seen in these terms the continuity of human life consists not so much in biological reproduction as in the continuous death and rebirth of these qualities; a renewal which of course would not happen but for its biological counterpart.

In a more traditional society the way these deeper qualities were conveyed through time from one generation to the next was perhaps more straightforward than in a modern multicultural society in which the state, almost by default, is forced to play an ever larger role. Even in a traditional society however there is a tendency for traditions themselves to harden as those charged with teaching them become fearful of the risk of letting go, of allowing the more subtle and in some cases potentially dangerous qualities implicit in tradition to be explored from within rather than merely replicated from without; fearful perhaps of death, or the return to chaos which it archetypally suggests. Such a hardened traditionalism is in effect one in which the ancestors rule from beyond the grave. Death is seemingly held at bay and order prevails, with the consequence that those who see themselves as authority figures in such a society identify more with the ancestors, or their semi-deified view of them, than with those they rule over; becoming themselves in a sense the living dead.

The threat to the continuity of human life in our own society is no less real, it is simply more difficult to see. Globalisation, effectively the triumph of Western culture, is also its point of maximum danger. For the success of Western civilisation has historically owed less to its own relatively shallow roots than to its genius in drawing upon the roots of others; roots which it now, naively, imagines itself to have outgrown. The danger, paradoxically, is that we are at risk of turning in upon ourselves even as we imagine ourselves, in our control of the world and in our access to limitless information, as turned outward.

If the danger for a traditional society is in being rooted artificially in the past it may be, by contrast, the threat we face is of being in rooted too firmly in the present. Even as we pay lip service to progress our idea of the future tends in reality to be merely a grander and more facile reflection of where we are right now - rendering us incapeable of embracing the future even as we ostentatiously wave around the title deeds to it.

Human words and actions do not merely replicate past behaviour, nor does their value depend wholly on there immediate meaning or value. Just as animal instinct is formed over immense periods of time and contains within itself a sufficient repertoire of possibility to respond to the unexpected so even more so also that delicate human sense of inner spaciousness, our capacity to reflect and imagine, is oriented by its very nature to the future - an unknown which by virtue of its unknownness is also a calling, a calling in effect to that true humanity whose existence consists solely in its conscious renewal. Human beings then exist, more than any other creature in time; time in its formed or comprehensible sense, but more particularly in that unformed, latent, chaotic sense that seeks, like the vines of an encroaching jungle, to reclaim merely static structures in the name of true fecundity.

In the case of humanity this fecundity is also within us and we utilise that life giving energy to the extent that we fully embrace our existence in time, past, the present and future. History has been defined as a dialogue between the present and the past, but this involves implicitly a dialogue with the future also - for freedom from the present, or the known, means taking the risk of seeing it in the light of the unknown. What is involved here is not mere knowing but rather the renewal of life itself, in effect embarking on a journey.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Nameless Path Revisited

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