Friday, June 11, 2010
Creating Meaning Where There Is None
It's always been intriguing to me to check out other peoples' realities. In general, they vary wildly from my own, and thus my interest in what kind of lives other people lead. Most people don't realize, or else they just forget, that they created the life in which they find themselves. The basic assumption is that the guy in the car next to you sees the world in much the same way as you do, and that he'll keep his car between the two painted lines that designate his lane as you barrel down the highway next to him at 80 mph. It's a tenuous little agreement that we take for granted, when in fact the slightest shift of his reality (or steering wheel) could alter yours permanently.
The reality into which I was born was radically different than the one in which I now find myself. How did that happen? A series of subtle shifts over the course of decades, and before you know it, you're in another lane, going in another direction. My experience of the world has changed considerably, thus my reality looks quite different now than when I was in my 20s. And it's likely that my reality is significantly different than yours. Is my red the same as your red? Maybe. Does an apple taste the same to you as it does to me? Probably. Does my brain process things in the same way that yours does? Probably not. And what about values? That's where things start to heat up. Because who we are isn't about how our biological systems are set up; it's about what we value, and how we prioritize the things that matter to us the most.
Aside from the certainty of death and taxes, there are those institutions that we take for granted as essential components of 'reality'. Marriage is one. Faith in God is another. Patriotism, the NFL, and a weekend in the Hamptons also weigh in at some point. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about these things; we tend to follow the path of least resistance and observe the custom, figuring that it's as good as any other.
Unless it's not. If you're Jewish, you're probably not going to walk around spinning a Tibetan prayer wheel. Likewise, a Tantric practitioner would have little use for communion, just as a Presbyterian would not be inclined to practice amaroli. And if the institution of marriage is as relevant for you as the Easter bunny, then you needn't waste your time or money going through the motions. All of these rites are designed not for skeptics, but for those who deeply believe in their value and/or sanctity. There's absolutely no point in participating in a ceremony that you find insignificant.
Unless it's not. It's possible that you can create your own meaning outside of the cultural context. A newly naturalized citizen of the United States may be profoundly moved by singing 'God Bless America', while the rest of us remain dry-eyed and cynical. The NFL is a hoot for me, not because I enjoy football (heck, I don't even know how to play), but because it fascinates me to see how seriously it's taken by the coaches and players. It's like watching a bunch of martians emote and gloat about something terribly absurd, like the size of their ears, or the girth of their antennae.
As for the Hamptons, it sounds mind-numbingly tedious to me. I have visions of a bunch of drunk people swapping business cards with other drunk people, sipping Bloody Marys by a sterilized pool, and performing countless downward dogs in their Prana yoga gear. BUT...it just so happens that I'm going to the Hamptons for the first time this weekend, because my friend has invited me to join her and her kids for a couple of days in their summer home. So within the context of a ritual that I find tedious and hollow, I hope to create some kind of deeper meaning, like maybe work on my tan while contemplating the meaning of a few gin and tonics.
The chances are good that we don't share the same experience of God, but we can at least agree that it's a mystery, and unfathomable, and we're assuredly both wrong about what "it" is anyway, so no reason to get all apocalyptic about it. And patriotism, well, I don't get all weepy in the days leading up to July fourth or anything like that, but I've lived abroad and traveled enough to know that there's no place like America. However, while I deeply appreciate my access to freedoms that citizens from other countries cannot comprehend, I won't be throwing my baton in the parade.
No, I'm a silent participator in cultural rituals. I like to watch people getting married, in the same way that I like to watch the NFL. And when the July fourth fireworks go off here at the Bushwick monastery, I like to look out my cell window and thank God that I'm an American and therefore have the freedom not to participate.