Sunday, July 31, 2011

A New Prescription

Ca va, NIP?

            Summer is drawing to a close, but I’m sort of excited.  After spending last week at USF for the annual Advanced Placement Summer Institute, I can’t wait to meet my new students and implement fresh ideas. This summer in particular has been a tremendous boon in the sense that it has allowed ample time for personal growth and reflection. Erin and I did our best to balance our time with yoga practice, house projects, school preparation, and rest. But it wasn’t until I was at the training that I had the opportunity to recognize something—I need to wear my glasses more often. During the first few days of the training, I noticed that the writing on the board was slightly fuzzy. Even after I brought my glasses with me it still wasn’t perfect, which made me realize that I may have to get a new prescription. It wasn't so bad that I couldn’t get the general picture of what I was seeing, but I certainly couldn’t ascertain the finer details—but it’s often the minute details that are the most complex, the most curious, the most beautiful, and unfortunately, most overlooked.

I think the same can be said for life as well. We all have a tendency to not notice the simple beauty that surrounds us. Some of us do take stock of it once in a while, but for most it is mundane. Perhaps it is from being too enthralled by gadgets in particular and technology in general, but I think something else is afoot. It began nearly 2500 years ago, but really ramped up after the Industrial Revolution. Though it may only be my personal opinion, I think the cultural legacy of the West began on the wrong foot. While Plato may have not foreseen nor intended the consequences of postulating a metaphysical world above and beyond our own, his cleaving of the world in twain laid the foundation of our dualism. Consequently, we view all things in pairs, often elevating or celebrating one half as worthy of our time, attention, and focus while downgrading the importance or relevance of the other half as beneath us. In so doing, Plato unwittingly turned the world that we live in and life in general into the lesser of two ideals. Perfection could only be found “out there,” beyond human conception and comprehension. Several hundred years later as this was extrapolated into a model for paradise in the afterlife, it further reinforced the notion that the life hereafter is better than the one we are currently living.

By the time the Industrial Revolution rolled around, science and technology had improved and were about to begin their meteoric rise. In his famed work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 19th century economist Max Weber spoke of “the disenchantment of the world.” He noted how the advance of science and rational thought seemed only to reinforce this split between the natural world we inhabit and the perfection we dream about in the afterlife (or any imagined life we lead in our minds during the present moment). Human beings in the West had essentially “explained away” the mystery of life. The natural world had long lost its last hold on our hearts. Human beings no longer viewed the external world as a chain of phenomena imbued with the sacred. And once the cosmos lost its sanctity, we did too by default. Perhaps this is why so many people seem lost and without a sense of purpose or direction. Our technological age has left us unmoored, bobbing helplessly on the waves of meaninglessness.

But it doesn’t have to be so, NIP.

            All we need is a new prescription. A fresh set of eyes, a willingness to see the world and its wonders. I found my new glasses a couple of years ago and oddly enough they’ve only made me more myopic. The more I focus on the miraculous that surrounds me, the more I screen out the truly trivial. Sure I may get excited over seeing a new bird in my backyard and could care less about the newest innovation, but which is more of an engineering marvel? The once-upon-a-time-dinosaur-that-now-has-hollow-bones-and-can-fly that has survived for millions of years, or the latest iPhone that will be outmoded in six months? All of this really gets back to what I mentioned in an earlier letter about contemplating the odds of existence. Life is incredible if we choose to see it as such. Part of the recognition is simply being mindful of the natural world, of taking stock of the complex beauty that saturates our lives but often goes overlooked. The other part, however, is slightly more difficult because it forces us to let go of dualistic notions. By reintegrating the outside world with our inner world, we can achieve some sense of wholeness within ourselves and a sense of belonging and participation within the macrocosm of life. If we continually set our sights on the miraculous beauty that is all around us, it enriches our own personal worldview. Rather than fostering the isolation that our contemporary technological (i.e. disconnected) world imparts, we begin to feel a profound connection with the pulse of life. In time, a harmony arises. First relationships with those closest to you get better, then the others in your immediate sphere of human experience, whether friends, coworkers, students, or whomever else with which you come into contact. Then it blossoms outward even more and before you know it all life is blanketed with the swaddling of the sacred.

            Anyone can do this, NIP. In all honesty, I think it is of the greatest import that we “re-enchant” the world we inhabit and, in a broader sense, all of life. The willingness to acknowledge a needed change in the way we perceive and interact with our world is the first step to discovering hope. And it is on the bedrock of hope that we can lay the foundations of meaning, allowing them to undergird our ever growing awareness of the sacred that surrounds us. It’s all right there. Just take a look out the window or perhaps step outside. It may take time for you to adjust to the new world you see, and it takes the constant cultivation of curiosity and creativity, but with due diligence it will make itself manifest. It took me more than 30 years to realize how badly I needed new glasses, but once I slipped them on I realized that they didn’t show me anything new, they just helped me to focus on what was there all along.

Keep looking, NIP; it’ll show itself sooner or later…

- Ryan  

Monday, July 18, 2011


Hey there, NIP…

            Life has been flowering lately. Or at least it seems that way to me. Erin and I just returned from several days in the mountains of northern Georgia. We went hiking, did our yoga practice on the back deck looking out into the trees, spent time with family and tried to rejuvenate ourselves as much as possible. On the whole this summer has been incredible. Much has been accomplished in the first few weeks, especially for this upcoming year’s Philosophy Honors and World Religions classes. The time off has given me ample time for reflection, both on my teaching in general and on grand ideas in particular. Though the philosophy textbook is an introductory one, it has had a powerful effect on my thinking. Metaphorically speaking, it would be akin to the feeling one gets when coming home after a vacation or some other prolonged absence, or perhaps visiting with old friends with whom you haven’t seen face to face in years. And while Heraclitus, Aristotle, Diogenes and friends have been enlightening in their own ways, they have been the prelude to the sagacious spirit of one thinker in particular.

            Mr. Howard Thurman. Howard Thurman is my favorite Christian theologian, but I use that label hesitantly. Mystic is probably a much more accurate description of Thurman. His ability to transcend any barrier and deeply touch upon the human condition is the hallmark of his philosophy. Regardless of labels, Thurman’s genius was forgotten or overlooked by history. Among many notable accomplishments, he went to seminary with Martin Luther King Sr. and later mentored MLK Jr., who went on to carry a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited in his briefcase at all times for spiritual nourishment. Thurman also began the first church for all faiths in San Francisco in the 1940’s, was the first black dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, a distinguished professor, and penned many tomes. While I haven’t read all of his books, I’m more than half way through and own most because I purchased them with the intent to finish his entire list of works. Before we left for Georgia, I ran upstairs to grab a book on an intuitive urge to read some Thurman. As I glanced at the unread titles, Deep Is the Hunger immediately caught my eye. Not because I was familiar with its subject matter, but because I loved the title. It resonated within me because of my voracious appetite for knowledge and wisdom. Little did I know, however, that the book was not a standard Thurman opus; instead I discovered a collection of short essays he wrote to be read aloud and meditated upon, something he would do before his regular Sunday services wherever he was pastor at the time. There are hardly any pages I haven’t underlined passages in, scribbled marginalia in the spaces between essays, and contemplated deeply. So much of Thurman’s wisdom has been a foundation for how I try to conduct my life. For who or what I am capable of becoming. A better person, a better human being. It’s also what I hope (perhaps foolishly?) all people are striving to do.

            In order to become a better person, I’ve been trying each day to embrace life more and more. Some days are more difficult than others, as we all have moments when we fall short of our best. At least now I’m consciously aware of them and do my best to make amends. But as these last few years have proven, my life has become better and better—if only incrementally—because I have chosen to wholly embrace life. The more I seriously ponder life, the more I feel grateful, blessed, and humbled. Out of this has arisen meaning. A meaning that I didn’t have before in my life. My life really began to have new meaning when I met Erin, even more so when we wed. These last two years or so, however, have been something else. Erin has undoubtedly been the foundation for this growth, but I feel it fanning outward. Thurman calls this experience “the growing edge,” as if it somehow extends its own diameter from the center of our experience, encompassing and affirming more and more of life. I can’t really express what I feel the way that Thurman’s words can, so I will leave you with one of his short meditative essays from Deep Is the Hunger, NIP. I hope you enjoy these words and perhaps they will stir something in your heart as well.

            Is this a world with moral meaning at the center? This is the primary question. It must be answered before other questions can even be asked. True, it can never be answered with proof and finality, but some answer must be given on the level of faith. In history, men have often tried to side-step facing the question by saying “We can never know”; but it cannot be side-stepped. To decide not to decide is to decide against. The negation of inactivity is just as potent as the emphatic vocal “No!” Only when one has said “Yes,” or has said “No,” or has given what amounts to “No” by saying nothing—only then can one face the other basic problems: since there is meaning, what is the nature of that meaning? Or since there is no meaning, how shall we act in accordance with this terrible negative? Life affirmation is not possible unless we summon enough courage to make the first basic act of faith: “I believe there is moral meaning at the center of life!” Unfortunately, it is easily possible—much too easily possible—to make this affirmation with gusto and enthusiasm without really meaning it. Not that it is easy to be insincere, but that it is difficult to really mean it. This is simply because there is evidence on either side. We see the sordid and tragic in life; we see the pain and suffering. This is evidence, we may say, against there being meaning at the center. Then we see beauty, truth, love and fulfillment, and we say, “This is evidence on behalf of meaning.” And the evidence is always straining within us. In consequence, we may decide intellectually in favor of meaning, only to find our subconscious casting a dissenting ballot. Douglas Steere says most of us are not integrated selves but each of us is a whole committee of selves and decisions are made by a majority vote. The result is a vocal life affirmation, and active life negation. We are committed to meaning only in an equivocal way. Therefore, the great labor of life, after we have made the initial life affirmation, is to validate the decision in practice. After all, how can one believe that life has meaning, if his own life does not have meaning. No words, no matter how eloquently and enthusiastically uttered, can replace the expressiveness of action. Indeed, words become true when they are lived, and they become untrue when the living of them is neglected. We shall always be ambivalent, and our “Yes” will never have the total assent of our total wills. Our great labor is simply to bring active affirmation as close to possible to vocal affirmation. All else is subsidiary.

Keep affirming life, NIP.

- Ryan