Reflection 93: Angels

April 22, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

We are prone to leaping to conclusions on very shaky evidence. That is how our minds work. We tell ourselves stories to account for phenomena we only dimly understand. The first time I heard oldsquaws (long-tailed ducks) at night, I thought someone had opened the window on revelers at a New Year’s Eve party. The nearest house was over a mile away. I listened to the horn-tootlers for a while, rolled over, and went back to sleep. If I hadn’t seen and heard the ducks the next week, I’d have born a grudge against my dear neighbor.

 

Often, we believe what we can get away with, particularly in circles of like-minded friends. Testing the stories we tell ourselves requires careful observation and diligence. It is far easier to get by on what we think we know and let it go at that. We are impressionable to a fault, believing what we want to believe, not doing background checks on those who inform us, or questioning their motives, much less our own. We raise innocence to the level of gullibility, and are as overly trusting of others as of ourselves. Geniuses at making leaps of faith, we put a familiar face on the unknown and mysterious. We know what we believe and believe what we know.

 

Take angels, for instance. We have a word for them, therefore they exist. Angels are mentioned in the Bible, the Qur’an, Persian mythology, and The Celestial Hierarchy attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century C.E.). They are portrayed as supernatural beings mediating between God and man in the monotheistic religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

 

Angels clearly have a history. They have been evolving in the human mind for over five millennia. In the beginning, there were messengers, which is what both Hebrew mal’ak and Greek angelos mean. Divine messengers from the heavens above. It was the vision of the sun, moon, and planets as messengers of stellar divinities in the night sky that sparked the origin of Sumerian beliefs in Mesopotamia, the same origin to which we can trace the roots of many of our modern beliefs.

 

The appeal of angels—heavenly bodies interpreted as divine messengers—was in serving as designated agents responsible for bringing affairs on Earth into accord with those in the starry realm overhead. That is, “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” or, “As above, so below.” That is powerful magic, bringing human conduct into line with the will of the gods. Such is the origin of astrology, knowledge gained through study of the stars. And beyond astrology, of theologies postulating the existence of divinities floating in the sky.

 

Angels are supernatural beings, figures that would shock us if we met them on the street. The company they keep is confined to the fabulous tales we spin in our heads to account for events we don’t understand. They have staying power in serving to explain that which cannot be explained, or which might be explained in less colorful ways.

 

The band of supernatural beings we believe in but never expect to meet face-to-face is surprisingly large. Start with the little ones, the clever, mischievous, magical scamps the likes of brownies, elves, fairies, gnomes, gremlins, imps, leprechauns, pixies, sprites, and trolls.

 

Then there are the big scary ones like giants and ogres. The ones with mixed body parts: Chimeras (lion-goat-serpent hybrids), harpies (women with the tail, wings, and talons of hawks), lamia (women-serpents who suck blood), mermaids, monsters, sphinxes (lions with the head of a man, ram, or hawk; or winged lions with the head of a woman), satyrs (bawdy goat-men), and werewolves. And the disembodied ones: banshees, bogeys, haunts, ghosts, phantoms, shades, specters, spirits, and spooks.

 

Not to forget cupids, demons, devils, dragons, genies, ghouls, hobgoblins, houri (dark-eyed virgins of Islamic paradise), poltergeists (noisy ghosts), vampires, witches, and warlocks. And for good measure, incubi (male demons that have sex with sleeping women), and succubi (female demons that have sex with sleeping men).

 

Through the years, a great many tales have been told of such beings to explain or justify specific aspects of human experience. Not all such agents are as outmoded as many of these. Who does not believe in Santa Clause to some degree, the Easter Bunny, Mother Nature or Mother Earth, Father Sky, various saints, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, the phoenix, Hamlet, Huck Finn, Scarlet O’Hara, Don Quixote, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Sherlock Holmes, Bugs Bunny, Lassie, Archie and Veronica, Popeye, Tarzan, R2D2, Zorro, and a host of similar figures from art, literature, comics, film, theater, and TV?

 

Mickey Mouse and Garfield are as real to us today as Barack H. Obama, Charles Lindbergh, Oprah Winfrey, Humphrey Bogart, and Kim Jong-il. Aside from immediate family, a child’s world is often peopled largely with characters from books and television. How could a child not believe in Big Bird, Barney, teddy bears, Barbie, Ken, or the Cat in the Hat?

 

Our minds are filled with images of creatures we can name yet stand for beings we have never met in the flesh. We take the world we live in largely on faith. Virtual reality existed in human consciousness long before the Internet claimed it for its own. We can name these creatures, describe them, tell of their deeds, and swear to their impact on our lives. Fictitious beings are every bit as real to us as firemen, astronauts, or the president of the United States. In many cases, more real because they play a larger role in our lives and require a greater share of our attention.

 

How is it possible that fictional figures can be as real to us as natural beings of flesh-and-blood? The answer is shockingly simple. Both the natural and supernatural exist on equal footing in the same place—personal consciousness, the domain of all human experience. Unless we probe our beliefs, and test them, we have a hard time telling the difference between live and make-believe creatures. Figures in consciousness do not come flagged as real or unreal. Dreams seem every bit as convincing to us as the checkout girl in the supermarket. We are all subject to illusions and mirages—a trash bag flapping in the wind taken for a stricken crow, a stranger mistaken for an intimate friend, a friend in novel circumstances reduced to a stranger.

 

How can we tell if an object in conscious experience is real or unreal? That is, if it exists in the world or only in our heads? We must put our experiential loops to work on the matter and test our impressions. Do others see what we have seen when they stand in our place? What do the rest of our senses say? If we come back later, does the phenomenon reappear? Can we interact with the phenomenon by engaging it in some way? If we act upon it, does it respond?

 

Doubt is our greatest ally in probing items of belief. Anything can be believed for a time because it is the nature of belief to defend itself. Doubt cuts through such defenses. How consistent is this phenomenon with the rest of our experience? Is it an exception for which we must make special allowance—such as creating an entire realm governed by exceptional rules? Is it excessively complicated, or deceptively simple? Even the most respected authorities are wrong on occasion. No one’s consciousness is right all the time.

 

Take angels, for example. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? We all know what pins are because we have been stuck by them often enough. They are small, slender physical objects made of metal, pointed on one end, flattened on the other. How big are angels? What are their proportions? What are they made of? How would you describe one? We say fluttering candle flames indicate the passing of angels; is that a reliable test? Mentioning angels in the same sentence as pins or candle flames doesn’t make them real. We are mixing categories of experience here, as if both were equally verifiable, pretending the attributes of one extend to the other. Which they don’t and they can’t.

 

Mythology begins within us in our left-brain interpreters. When we act out our fictitious beliefs as explanations for things being as they are—which we do in waiting for Santa, playing the Tooth Fairy, telling tales of storks delivering babies, or expecting the natural world to serve the human economy—that’s when the stories we tell ourselves can get us into trouble. That is when hesitation, skepticism, double-checking, doubt, and further research are called for before we act out our stories. Let’s pretend is fun on occasion, but a steady diet can wreak as much havoc as a suicide bomber.

 

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Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

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