Beltane Sumi-e Moon
Good friend Mario (his traveling name) coming today. I’ll pick him up at DIA and take him to Boulder where he’s going to stay for a few days before Tom and Paul arrive on Thursday. Then we’re off to visit the 416 fire, see how it’s doing 13 miles north of Durango. Well, not really, but we do have reservations in Durango and the 416, still only 10% contained as of yesterday, is a monster, a megafire to use Boulder journalist Michael Kodas’s phrase. We’ve had to rearrange our itinerary already with the Durango/Silverton RR shut down due to the 416.
Sharpening doubt has become an excellent practice. The 416 is a good example. When we plan, even as little as a month or so in advance, mother earth can shrug, say, well, it was a good idea. Or, pollen season. We take breathing as automatic until we can’t. My last couple of weeks of misery reminds me that breathing, that every few seconds miracle of exchanging used co2 for o2, the outside coming in and the inside going out, has its limits. And, of course, that is a reminder of its ultimate limit, cessation. We live as if. We live as if our plans are solid, our breathing will continue; but, in fact there are doubts about both, contingencies, real ones.
How does this make for an excellent practice? Doesn’t it really just increase anxiety? You might think so, but no, at least not for me. What it does for me is highlight the value, the necessity, of faith. How so? Faith is a choice to live in the face of doubt, faith is an act of courage that says, in spite of doubt, or because of doubt, I choose to get up in the morning. I choose life. Trivial? Hardly. Just ask Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams. Faith, not faith in a supernatural guarantor, but faith that for this moment the contingencies of life will not extinguish me, not overcome me, is a necessary virtue, in many ways, the sine qua non of virtues.
Living the unconscious, unexamined life, paying the bills, mowing the lawn, taking your meds, watching TV or movies, setting aside the reality, the truth that tomorrow is never certain, that even this moment could be fraught may seem easier, but in fact it’s a state of denial. What’s the problem with that? Two things at least. The first is that when one of those contingencies forces you against the wall, presses on you, it will come as a surprise, a betrayal, a monster. The second, and the one I’m working on with sharpening doubt, is it dulls vital living.
I want to know, to remember, to live in spite of the real dangers, not imaginary ones. Breathing can, will stop. That birthday party may not happen. This might be the day that a megafire rushes up the Brook Forest valley and consumes our home. Could be that as a result of the Korean summit meeting, instead of peace, nuclear missiles will fly. Could be that a guy like Trump will get elected as president.
I want to know that my choice to come up here this morning to write is an act of small courage, an act of faith that my breathing will not stop, not right now, that I will not fall down the stairs and break my neck, that what I write has some importance in spite of little evidence. Think, for example, of Stephen Hawking. The contingencies of life, the abyss, opened its maw for him early. Instead of cowering before it, he did not allow those contingencies to define him, instead he chose to live as if what he could do in spite of those contingencies, in spite of the moment to moment dangers to his existence, was important. True faith. The courage to become who you are in the face of dangers, toils and troubles. That’s faith.
Not sure I’m expressing this well. Let’s try this. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s denial. Denial truncates life, makes its secondary aspects appear primary. The job. The car. The apartment. School. This is where a religious metaphor is useful. We can make idols of our career, our marriage, our children, our home, even our fears. That is, we can make them, in H. Richard Niebhur’s term, our centers of value. We do that when they are the focii around which we make our decisions, guide our lives. They become, in every functional sense, our gods, determining our choices.
But life will not be fooled. That job will end. A marriage can falter. The children can move away, disappear. Our home can burn down or be lost to the mortgage brokers. What happens to your life when it has its own personal Ragnarok? Can you survive the death of the gods? The answer is yes only if you have known all along that they are what is secondary, that they are not gods at all, demi-gods at best, maybe dryads or nymphs, maybe not divine at all.
What is divine, what is sacred is this strange mystery, this life. And it is fragile. Yet it is in its fragility, the precariousness of it, that the juice, the vibrancy lies. We can choose to become who we are as if that fragility does not matter, cannot force us into denial, cannot make us put our faith in temporary things, and, they’re all temporary. The true idolatry is to take the temporary as if it has permanence. The job defines me. This marriage will last. Our home is safe. No. The only permanence lies in choosing in this moment to live in spite of. To live as if the temporariness, the impermanence that defines life will not manifest right now, while knowing all along that impermanence is the truth, that it will have its way with our life, now or later.