Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Scientists, Mystics, and The Language of Awe: Or, What Does Carl Sagan Have In Common With the Psalmists?

The scientific method and hardcore empiricism do not provide a satisfying vocabulary to explain or comprehend or even articulate the mystery of existence; yet there is ample religious literature that has taken up speculation about it as its main task. This is why many scientific skeptics always inevitably end up using mystical language when talking about the mystery of existence.

Let me explain.

This past Monday April 14, Neil Degrasse-Tyson delivered a lecture at Tulane University, packed with 2,300+ people. Among the many points that he made, he insisted that, in his words, “the universe is trying to kill you.” He described all the things out there that seem almost designed to destroy living things, from earthquakes to hurricanes to tsunamis. And that's just earth. Consider, he told us, outer space itself, everything that our atmosphere protects us from, devoid of oxygen. And even beyond that, there are black holes, the real-life Dementors, entities capable of swallowing anything that stumbles into their fatal fields. Hence, even though it’s scientifically inept to say so, it’s as if the universe had the actual intention to “kill us.” As if it were actually “trying,” though from a skeptical mindset we should restrict ourselves to asserting that it’s just being itself. 
Whatever it is, we know it’s dangerous.
In light of this, the fact of life coming about seems… well, strange. Unlikely. Weird. Miraculous.  
Carl Sagan, Degrasse-Tyson’s intellectual dad, was well aware of this. He made a living out of spinning this insight into beautiful turns of phrase: “We are start dust,” “a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam,” our home is “the pale blue dot.” For this, he insisted that we should be grateful for being alive in such cosmically hostile circumstances. He was hesitant to bring the G-word or any kind of theological vision into play. But he insisted on gratitude.
Now, Sagan and Degrasse-Tyson both claim to be skeptics. Unlike Dawkins, Dennett and co. (the so-called “new atheists”), they don’t like to rule out the reality of the divine. Sticking to the scientific method, they say that those kinds of things simply cannot be investigated. Both claim to be agnostics, not atheists. Hence they are not aggressive towards religious language. They’re merely hesitant about it. They're curious, but only about things that can be investigated by science. There is no room for those things we can be curiously speculative about. Speculation is only good if there is any hope of scientific verification. Without that hope, speculation is uncalled for. Hence we should not speculate upon the great Why of existence. We should not be speculative about God.
Yet Carl Sagan tells us to be grateful for this mysterious thing called conscious existence. Despite the strictures of the scientific method, he can’t help but use the kind of language that has been shaped by centuries of mystical/theistic traditions, words like “grateful,” "humble," etc.
I can find you psalms upon psalms in the Bible—not to mention (quite literally) hundreds of poems written by religious mystics from many theistic traditions—that express similar sentiments: the smallness of the human person within the cosmos; the almost absurd feeling that one was “chosen” to exist; the accompanying feeling that one is “stranded” in the middle of something vast, mysterious, and threatening, a reality that one can only begin to comprehend; the utter “givenness” of existence, as David Bentley Hart writes. Whenever anyone today speaks of gratitude in such a way, using language that describes the awe-fulness of existence, they are using theological resources, whether consciously or not. They are pulling words from theological dictionaries, dictionaries written not by scientists but by the religious mystics, the first investigators of existence. So despite his measured skepticism, when it came to the mystery at the heart of life—the mystery of existence itself, and more so, human existence—Carl Sagan could not help but use Biblical language.
I’m not going to try to mine Sagan’s writings now to claim that “he was a theist all along” or anything like that. I respect his claim to agnosticism and would not want to insult or undermine it. However, I do put forth the question: why is it that, in the face of the great mystery of existence, of consciousness, of awe, we can’t seem to help but use the language of the mystical?
Well, for one, scientific language is deficient when it comes to expressing these emotion-ideas; indeed, by definition it cannot. So the skeptic turns begrudgingly, unknowingly, to the next-best thing, which is mystical language.  He says: we must be grateful.
Now I, the annoying theist, must ask: grateful to what? Gratitude is useless if it’s not directed at anything. Science cannot, and must not if it is to keep its strict fences up (and remain coherent), answer this. It must stand agape, mouth atremble. It must stand silent.
The religious mystic, too, stands silent. Yet he makes poetry out of that silence. And he envisions that, somewhere, a Something that both encompasses the whole universe yet is not equivalent to it, is carefully pondering that poetry. That is, when the theistic mystic gazes at the mystery at the heart of existence, he senses that Someone is gazing back at him, even though he cannot begin to picture what or who this Someone is. But if this Someone is gazing back at him, and if this Someone is the same One responsible for his existence, then this Ultimate Source must be the very fountain of Love. For to truly live is to love.
Ah, but I’ve donned by theologian’s hat. I’ve ventured too far. And anyway, this engenders a series of question, such as: if I was loved into existence, why is it that now existing things seek to kill me? 
So I’ll stop. Those questions have been pondered by literally every single mystical poet. I mean, there’s a whole book in the Bible called the “Lamentations,” which is thoroughly depressing. So I'll stop and give you the direction to look at for those answers, which is essentially the history of theology.
I will only say one more thing: I did not come up with that paragraph by myself. Said understanding of the self/God relationship has been developed over the course of centuries by thinkers, poets, philosophers, saints. I am condensing the beauty of my own theistic tradition into one little paragraph.
There are a couple of things I've been wanting to say with this, but if there's one that I want to harp on, it's this one: Before denouncing the theistic point of view as “merely superstition,” we must pay careful attention to the fact that it’s been shaped by many very wise people, that such language has accompanied us all along, and that it accompanies us still, feeding us with the conceptual vocabulary to articulate our own existence to ourselves when we find ourselves incapable of expressing it. And for this reason, the language of mysticism will never quite leave us, even if we leave it. If God is indeed dead, the word "God" never quite will be. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Lack of All Whimpering and Laughter, the Lack of All Life

I awoke as I always do: on my back, looking at the roof. All my blinds were shut, but I could hear my children arguing outside. Julio swatted Gigglers, Chinita pleaded on their behalf. And of course the Gigglers giggled, many little voices, until my son’s hands put an end to their joy. 

I could picture the scene. The butterflies like multitudinous paper stars flapping about with the calm of nature, emitting their all-too-human giggles from whatever source within them had the capabilities of a human throat, merrily unaware of my son’s childish murderousness. And my daughter, my pequeña justiciera: “Laughing butterflies make bright days brighter, Julio! And you’re killing it! Stop. Stop. Stop!” 

And on her impassioned speech went, worthy of any founding father, while Julio jumped around as cheerfully as the butterflies flapped and laughed, swatting and even killing a few, enacting the sociopathic instincts of most little boys. Picturing a perfectly sunny day around the scene, a backyard lit brightly green by a friendly sun, made it all the more unsettling to me.

And so my two children played out the eternal pattern. When I was a child, the boys stuck firecrackers in the mouths of lizards, put them in mailboxes, and after the clattery POW, would look inside the mailbox to see the letters and notices inside it now splattered with reptilian entrails, a velvety, almost strokable tail of smoke wafting away from the center of the explosion, out of the mailbox. 

And the girls would be off in a corner, going all Ew about it, severely put-off by the boys, positively confirmed in their suspicions that it wasn’t they but the boys who had cooties. For if one could attribute some kind of cooties or general psychological deformity to boys, it wouldn’t be difficult to start enumerating symptoms. What kind of creature, after all, delights in exploding lizards? One with cooties. 

 “You’re a monster!” Chinita continued. “I’m gonna call MOM!” 

“Shut up, Chinita! You know there’s like millions of these in the entire whole world, right?” Slap, down went another Giggler. 


And slap, slap, slap, that’s three, maybe four Gigglers, each with laughs as unique as human fingerprints, each now dead.

“I HATE—” my daughter began to say, but then she was interrupted by a howl, a high-pitched scream that penetrated the walls of the house.

Usually when a Giggler died, its voice poofed away the way a light goes out when you switch it off: at the turn of a second there is silence where laughter used to be. But then there are “the martyrs.” These little rarities die slowly. They cry, they whimper, they thrash around. By way of their screams, they alert the Gigglers around them, Gigglers which then evacuate the area and disappear, leaving the space they had occupied with a concert hall's worth of giggles and a rainbow's worth of color as empty as the sky after a meteor shower.

Evidently my son had happened upon a martyr. I could picture it now: the broken body of the butterfly, drifting down to the ground in front of my son’s eyes, whimpering as it landed on the grass with the soft certainty of gravity.

“Oh shit,” said Julio. “Oh shit.” 

Now my son had the priviledge of listening to something die slowly. The butterfly’s cries sounded like the whimpers of an unloved dog: wheezy, high-pitched, helpless. It would breathe for minutes before its end, go on like this for a while. And now, now that he was staring at the prolonged suffering of a creature, now my son did not laugh. Neither did the world around him laugh: all the Gigglers were gone. My son and daughter were alone in the backyard.

I got up from the bed, postponed my usual toothbrush/morning shower/coffee routine, slipped on the sandals that were at the foot of my bed, left my bedroom, crossed the dining room, and headed straight for the glass backyard door, through which I saw, past the backyard veranda, my two children standing over the martyr. I slammed the door open, so that they would know I was there. Chinita turned her head around. I expected her to look to me for vindication, as she usually did. But her face was instead pale, her mouth atremble, her eyed wide and shivery. One second ago she was the last in a long line of prophets of justice. Now she was what she is: a little girl. 

Besides, the presence of a parent magnifies the horror of any ghastly scene. Even though she had committed no crime, I knew she couldn’t help feeling that she had somehow been caught.
I went on ahead until I stood beside Julio, over the dying butterfly. 

Its wings were a dainty yellow, now marred by guts and blood; one wing was stuck to the ground: wet, wrinkly, cracked. The butterfly’s exoskeleton lay snapped in an isoceles-like angle, and a lonely antenna, the last remaining moving thing of the Giggler, gave faint ticks of life in morse code patterns. And the whimpers, of course, that now filled the hole where there used to be laughter. 

I grabbed my son’s ear. He squealed. This is when he realized that I was there, too.

I crouched and pulled him down with me, then I put his face up against the grass, right beside the dying Giggler. He winced. His lips shook. He gasped. Julio didn’t need to talk now. His face did all of it for me. “Listen to it,” I said. “This is what you want to do, so listen to it.” In the corner of my ear, I heard in whispers the sobs of my daughter. When I had grabbed Julio, she had gasped too, her hands had reached for her mouth. Now she stood still, fixated the way a child is when she sees things that her vocabulary cannot describe. The dead martyr, the crying, Julio’s violence, my violence, all slamming her psyche now, all begging for definitions in a brain with insufficient dictionary entries.

“You,” I told her, “go inside.”

She stayed there. How many fears had come true for her at this moment? Fears that she didn’t even know she had? “AHORA,” I said. She ran off.

I turned to Julio again. “Finish what you began. Now.”

I shoved his face further into the ground and just as quickly pulled my hand away from it. And he just lay there. I imagine him thinking now, how the butterfly’s whimpers sounded like those of his baby sister when he first held her, those of any baby. 

“Are you gonna do anything?” I asked him. 

I knew he wouldn’t. 

He looked like a boy who who was trying to listen for something that came from the bottom of the earth, his ear pinned so close to it, his eyes so open. Dear earth, I imagined him asking: How do I get out of this?

You don’t.

I stomped the butterfly, and that was the end of all sound. Somewhere far away the other Gigglers continued laughing, maybe under the menace of some new boy, or maybe in the peace of a lone bush. But I wanted Julio to listen to the now, to the lack of whimpering and laughter, the lack of all life. 
 “Clean up the bodies of all the ones you’ve killed,” I said, now noticing the corpses of at least five butterflies around me. “And when you’re done, I want you to catch one, put it in a jar, poke holes in the cap so it won’t die, and put it on your nightstand tonight. You’re going to have a new bed buddy tonight. Understood?”

And from there, on the ground, beneath the pale, trembling body language, I saw a vague movement of his head. The ghost of a nod.

I walked away. To be truthful, I was glad for the silence. It can get annoying with the Gigglers, like a drunken comedy show crowd hovering around you all day.

Once I closed the glass door behind me, I looked back at Julio, who had not stood up yet, who seemed as dead now as the corpses around him. And that’s when I couldn’t look away. 

It occurred to me that he had been as unaware of the Gigglers as the Gigglers had been of him. Up until now, my boy’s life had been one act of destruction after another: toys, walls, animals, insects, other little boys, Chinita. For him they were the tools for a particular kind of creativity, canvases upon which he wreaked the havoc of his cruelty. The life of my boy and the life of the insects had been like two parallel lines that only met in his act of killing. Up until now, no real conversation had ever occurred between my boy and the other little boys, the toys, the Gigglers, Chinita. 

I noticed that my daughter was nowhere in the living room. I imagined she was in her room, inside her own head—maybe reading one of her adventure books, writing in her journal, watching one of her cartoon movies, either way half of her self not here, but rather in that inner web of her soul, trying to put this all into words, ripping the muscles of her imagination in the process. I would visit her soon, as soon as I wiped away the dirt from my hands, the blood from my sandals, the ogre off my face. As soon as I showered, I would visit her and run my hands through her hair and speak with the voice that I prefer to use around my children, the mellifluous one that lulls her to sleep, the one my husband fell in love with. 

 He would have done this well. Maybe better than I. What I mean is, it’s not difficult to picture him doing it. What is difficult is waking up in an empty bed to the sounds of my son murdering helpless insects. It would be easier to wake up to that if Eric were there, with the knowledge that Eric was recently there, will be there soon, is around. 

This is why I never sleep sideways. When I wake up sideways, I don’t see a wall: I see the empty half of the bed. There used to be Eric there. I don’t need to remember that first thing in the morning.

Friday, October 11, 2013

One Who Runs, See Him Run

The fish lay alone on the wooden floor. Around it the scattered pieces of glass, like little beads of sand, that used to be a bowl. And the wooden floor absorbing the water that the fish once called home. The fish’s gills gasped for it. I could hear it. It was very similar to the sound of a helpless man gasping for breath. Like a creaking door, that inward scream of one who tries to swallow oxygen from nothing. And so the fish creaked its helpless croon. Its glassy eyes stared at nothing, but I could feel them pleading to me. It could form no facial expression to tell me it was dying, but it was telling me anyway. The fish and I, we communicated. Fish, I love you and I will save you, I said.

I lurched to the floor and tried to reassemble the pieces of glass. I formed a mound of pebbles that looked like a translucent Everest. Why did I think this was a good idea? Also, I could not tell the water to extricate itself from the wood, stand up and kindly go to the nearest bowl. So my hands scrambled. By which I mean: I went for the fish and cupped it in said scrambling hands.

I ran to the kitchen sink and then I flipped the fish over to my left hand, wrapped that hand’s fingers around it (“you will not fall from my hand, fish,” I said), and then used my right hand to turn the C handle on the kitchen sink: WHEEAK WHEEAK, it groaned, the sound of metal turning on metal. No water tunneled through the tube’s hollow brass-blackness. So I turned the H handle (“it’s better to be hot than to be dead, fish, don’t worry, you won’t die”), to no effect.

My right hand went back to my left hand and I went back to cupping the fish and I ran or scrambled or rather my legs were like the awkward legs of scissors jumping across the house; this is what saving a life does to me. I ran to the bathroom and tried the H and C handles on the shaving-hair-coated sink, the H and C handles on the shower, and then I, yes, I opened the toilet and it was as dry as my throat and the fish’s throat.

I ran back to the kitchen and took my right hand out of my left hand to get a cup from the counter and put the cup’s lip under my eye and started to squint and to wince and to think of dead babies or dead fish in order to get the tears out, but the tear ducts inside my eyes were as hollow as the brass tubes of all the sinks in my house.

Two doors swing open and a splash of sunlight: I am outside, running, and where is the damn river? All cities have rivers, but I see only houses, and all these houses are empty, and the only blue thing around here is the sky, and there aren't even any white clouds—so I run, and then the sound of a blocked lung, an inward burp, the open mouth of the fish being the open arms of a mother, the lack of water being the lack of a son, the lack of a daughter, the lack of a father, the lack of everything everywhere all at the same time, because H2O is like that: it is everything you need to be alive, fish.

I run to houses, knock on doors, but either they don’t answer or they don’t care. Everything is dry.

Now the night is about to fall, and the fish is still dying in my hands. I sit down on the curb and look down at the fish, see its body bobbing up and down, still half-breathing. This is no way to live, fish, I say, to be always dying.

“And I wondered then,” he said, “if the fish is to live in this permanent semi-death outside the water, will water only kill the fish? If so, should I throw it in the water? Can you see my position? I couldn’t just let go of the fish and throw it on the ground, because then the fish would never die. But I couldn’t take it to the water either, because then it would certainly die. If I even found water.”

And then I said, “Wouldn’t it be worse to be not the one holding the fish but the fish itself, the fish helpless, the fish at the mercy of one who runs when running doesn’t help?”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Looking At Strangers: Three Minutes at Royal Street

 Community Coffee: a glad respite from the afternoon heat. Sitting here, staring at a laptop monitor for too long, trying to decipher what Aquinas said about this or that, as a friend tries to figure out the same sitting beside me, I take a break and look up. At the other end of the coffee shop, another man, possibly some years older than me, hunches over his own laptop. Polo and shorts. I’m wearing shorts, but not a polo. Instead my dress shirt, which I often wear to parties and dates. I don’t know who the man is or what he works on, but I praise him for giving it so much importance. Now he puts on headphones. Hermetic seal.

Behind him, two closed doors with window panes reveal fragments of outside’s geography: angled parts of tree branches, Spanish architecture, and parked cars crammed into the window, fighting for their part in the frame. And the people, of course: A woman and man, in their sixties, walk down sweaty and fashionable. He wears a fedora, she a sun hat. Their faces look exhausted, as many tourists’ faces do at this hour, but I’m sure months from now they’ll consider their visit to New Orleans a worthy one. Behind them, weary parents walk. The woman rolls the stroller with the sleepy baby, the latter unseen by me. The father wears a Saints cap. I remember the Colombian Jesuit who, once seeing a similar sight in an airport in Paraguay, turned to me and with disdain remarked, “Rolando, that is not freedom.”

Through another window, I spot a heterosexual twentysomething couple, involved in a playful embrace, smiling at each other. They kiss, hold their lips together for a moment, then break apart, and laugh. It’s like they’re dancing with their faces. Conclusion: Kisses are inside jokes. They keep going at this—kiss, laugh break, kiss, laugh break—for almost a whole minute. I feel happy for them. And I keep looking, which is kind of weird. I get embarrassed at myself. I turn bright red. But at this point there’s no point in looking away. I also realize, after having taken in the scene, that I feel a need to point out that they are in fact a heterosexual couple, and thus add the adjective to the first sentence of this paragraph, adjective which means: the woman has black hair, the man is blonde, and they’re both white. The 21st century has given the writer reason to add adjective upon adjective upon adjective. I say “couple,” you ask, “which couple?”

Anyway, they look at each other like that, smiling and stupid, for a few seconds more, speaking sweet things probably unworthy of philosophy papers or anything publishable (no one develops theorems while they kiss a lover), and then continue walking, disappearing from the window frame. This is probably the last time I will ever see them, and so I am glad that they are smiling, because that means that in my mind, they will never be sad. Strangers, those you see from window panes and balconies, at close enough an angle to perceive their faces, yet far enough to make you forego guessing at names or any kind of specific circumstance, can often seem like the happiest people in the world. They have a long history, sure. But you are treated, in fortunate moments like this one, to its brightest chapters. Or to those that look the brightest, anyway.

After they leave, the street stays there, empty of faces and full of city. I wait. Something else should happen, someone should walk by whose countenance and gait will tell a rich history. Maybe a homeless person, a struggling artist, an afternoon drunk. My prayers are answered: an overweight man, with a short-sleeved button-down, walks into the coffee shop and decides to stand right in front of the window, blocking my view of the street. What blocks my view, precisely, is his belly: a boulder, pregnant with the exhaustion of many happy meals. Why did he decide to stand there? He wields a hoarfrost mustache, dimmed eyes. A few seconds and suddenly it is all clear: a child, a little boy, comes running from behind him and stands beside him, tugging at him. Daddy, I want a croissant. The boy wants a croissant the way Ponce de León wanted immortality: undyingly, fundamentally, immortally. This is not just a want, it is the consummation of all wants. I should add: The man is balding.

Beside me, my friend asks, “How’s your Aquinas paper going?”

I answer, “I haven’t worked on it at all.”

August 4, 2013