Thursday, August 21, 2014

Welcome to Uncertainty: A Preamble

"I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream."--Vincent Van Gogh

With the Big 4-0 upon me, I want to publicly declare that I don't have it all figured out. Not much, at least. Not yet, and I don't ever expect to. This should surprise no one. This is not false humility. This is the acknowledgment that, while I have some hunches, some lived experience, some sketchy assumptions, some deep-seated hopes and fears, I really don't know what's going on with this precious moment of life we are experiencing that envelops us like our own skin. Shouldn't a guy, a darn doctor, at age 40, have it all figured out? For my children's sake, for the sake of others who question, for my own sanity, I'm no longer willing to pretend like I do.

I take solace in the fact that I'm not alone.  With the exception of Jesus and the Buddha, and maybe a shout out to Ghandi and Lincoln (and maybe Neil DeGrasse Tyson, he seems pretty sharp), I don't think any of us have ever really known what's going on here, not really, even when we act like we do.  Not the astrophysicists, not the economists, not the philosophers, poets, politicians or priests. Certainly not me. We all know bits and pieces, but none of us can fathom the whole.

That doesn't mean we are being dishonest if we think we've got it figured out. I like to believe that we are all doing the best we can within whatever paradigms we've inherited. And this is not to disparage the power of the scientific method. It is by far the best tool ever devised to help us discern truth. But a person could have all the formulas, calculations, experimental evidence of every aspect of the composition of the universe at their fingertips, from galaxies to quarks, from the Big Bang to the event horizon, to explain the What, Where, and How of the universe, and still not have a clue as to the Why. We believe, we hope, we wish, we dream. We hypothesize, we assert, we guess, we suppose. But what do we really know? And how can we create meaning out of our ignorance?

We are trapped in Plato's cave: reading the shadows on the wall, yet never seeing the fires and figures that produce them. This predicament is not our fault. Like the Taoists have taught for eons, we fundamentally cannot know--or even name--the Tao, the Way, the ultimate source of meaning in the universe. We exist as oblivious subjects of the Cosmos, like infants opening our eyes but not yet self-aware, looking through a glass darkly, too limited by our frail bodies and fickle brains, too busy breathing and eating, sleeping and dreaming, working and playing, to have the infinite perspective it would take to ever put a finger on it.  It's not that we can't name it. It's that it can't be named. The more we know about a particle's location, the less we know about its destination. And so we live in a world of uncertainty and metaphor.

     "We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . 'Seems like we're just set down here,' a woman said to me recently, 'and don't nobody know why.'"  (from "Pilgrim on Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard)

The irony is that most of us live with the illusion that we do know the Why, or at least that somebody does. We are born, we grow, our brains develop, we learn languages, symbols and sounds that convey meaning but forever fall short of the essence of what we're trying to describe.  Our words are full of holes, leaking out essence like a slotted spoon, and by the time we get the ladle to our lips, the soup is gone. Think of blackberry:  when we see that jumble of curved lines, or when we roll those jangling syllables off of our tongues, we think that we have understood or communicated the idea of blackberry. And we have, sort of. But those are still just letters and sounds, pixels on a screen or vibrations of air, not the thing itself. (Props here to Robert Hass and his brilliant poem Meditation at Lagunitas. And man, do I ever love blackberries.) These symbols and syllables could never be that juicy, sweet, tart fruit that we know in its essence by taste, touch, sight and feel, that deliciousness we experienced when we first tasted it, warm and soft, in grandma's cobbler. The point is that the essence of blackberry can be experienced, but not conveyed.  Something is always lost in the translation. Our words, even our ideas, are metaphors.

By language and culture, we plug (or are plugged) into a matrix of thought: a religion, a country, a career, a community, and we learn to live by their codes. Those codes are written organically, sculpted by human nature and frailty in an undirected way over generations, over millennia. They take many specific shapes, but the end result is that, in a world of infinite vastness, complexity and fundamental uncertainty, they offer us the local and specific assurance that we most crave:  that the path we are following is known, the life we are living is correct, and in the end we will be okay. Of course, with most codes comes a cost. Conform, don't question.  Be prepared to pay a penalty if you ever have the courage to cut yourself free.

So into my uncertainty, here comes the Big 4-0, a convenient milestone of sorts. I'm ready for it. I think I've lived a good life, and I'm happy where I'm at:  a husband, a father of three, a doctor, a friend, a neighbor, a citizen, a seeker, an adventurer, a writer, a musician, a creator. On the surface, my life looks pretty much like I envisioned it would thirty years ago, with one big exception:  I'm no longer Mormon. That foundation, with all of its assertions of certainty and eternity, crumbled nearly five years ago, and everyday I'm still picking my way out of the rubble.

For the next twelve months, I'm going to conduct an experiment on myself.  This blog will chronicle an intentional spiritual journey, building on my first forty years and then launching into the unknown: my quest to see what sort of meanings--both practical and ultimate--I can carve out of my precious moment of consciousness in this infinitely complex, chaotic, beautiful, uncertain universe.

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