Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/22/2011

“. . . live your way into the answer.”

Before the question is asked, we live in a state of innocence. But once . . . we ask whether life is meaningful, there is no turning back. The possibility that our lives may be pointless leaves us naked and vulnerable. All of us seek a life of meaning and purpose, but finding such a life is difficult…The happiness of life, before the question began, was a delusion, a concealment and lie perpetrated by the conventional answers of success and fame and material comfort that the culture provided. In contrast to this intoxication, there is the sober perception that life [may be] meaningless, cruel, and stupid

Individuals, communities, and generations – they all need to find ways of dealing with uncertainty in their lives and thus need to continuously use their past practices and memories to prepare for the unknown future (2).

Sometimes I fear I’m stuck in childhood—my teenage years, to be exact. No, not as puer aeternus but as never having had the courage to grow beyond the intellectual patterns I learned in conservative Christian Western Nebraska. I return and return to the same constructs I knew in junior high school (perhaps if we had called it “middle school” in those days, I would have realized I was only half-way there).

Notice I said the constructs I “knew,” not the constructs I “believed.”

So let me plunge right into the middle (remembering, of course, this is not a blog about religion). I never quite got the idea of accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. I didn’t have anything against anyone else doing it. But I was thoroughly confused by the concept. Where was he? That was my big question. He never whispered in my ear that I should follow him. I thought it was actually quite bizarre that anyone would sing

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own;
And the joys we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

If you happened to read my posting yesterday, you know I have a problem knowing when I’m being sarcastic (it’s so much a part of me I don’t even realize it). So let me reiterate that’s not my intention. I want my ethos to match my feelings. My one certainty about “In the Garden” is that the music does nothing to move my soul the way, say, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele and other German chorales do—and did when I discovered them in “middle school” learning to play the organ.

At any rate, from about fifth grade on I knew I wanted something tangible to give my life to if I had to give it away at all, and the invisible Jesus simply didn’t mean much to me. That engendered much guilt and put me (at least in my private mental world) outside the circle of my community. Most many other constructs from my youth are as difficult for me as Jesus is.

I will say enigmatically that I have found many tangibles to give my life to that have not worked particularly well.

Puer aeternus

Puer aeternus

So now, having lived for about sixty years with this sense that I didn’t “get it” about Jesus—and many other things—I’m through with my puer aeternus rebellion or dubiety (c.1750, from L.L. dubietas “doubt, uncertainty” –it’s so quaint!). But I’m not ready to announce any new-found belief. And I’m not going to get all squishy (see my post from yesterday) and substitute “spirituality” for belief in Jesus. I don’t want to cop out of my dilemma.

My dubiety has not changed, but I have. Susanne Langer explains the change better than I can.

And with the rise and gradual conception of the self as the source of personal autonomy comes, of course, the knowledge of its limit—the ultimate prospect of death. The effect of this intellectual advance is momentous. . . As a naked fact, that [prospect] is unacceptable. . . [all] people—savage or civilized—would rather reject than accept the idea of death as an inevitable close to their brief earthly careers (3).

I would—thanks to Langer yet again—rather reject than accept the idea of death. The fact probably is that my inability to understand the religious tradition in which I was raised was holding in readiness whatever ability I might have to deal with the “knowledge of [the] limit” of my concept of my self. The double anxieties of feeling outside my community tradition and at the same time being aware of the (unacceptable) fact of the prospect of death

. . . are by-products of evolved emotions, such as fear and the will to stay alive, and of evolved cognitive capacities, such as episodic memory and ability to track the self and others over time. For example, once you can track even the seasons—and anticipate that leaves will fall off the tree in autumn and that squirrels will bury nuts—you cannot avoid overwhelming inductive evidence favoring your own death and that of those you are emotionally bonded to (4).

The fact that I can look back to the middle school years and begin to have some minimal understanding of where I’ve been in order to inform the rest of where I’m going is evidence that my life “is an unfinished project and uncertainty is an inevitable property” and in order

. . . To diminish this existential uncertainty and anxiety. . . [I construct and narrate] a particular life story [to] . . . lessen the weight of past randomness and uncertainty by viewing . . .life as an ordered process with a definite goal (5).

Recently I had reason to find a poem Rainer Maria Rilke (one of his Sonnets to Orpheus). In the process, I came to his Letters to a Young Poet. He says

Have patience with everything unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, then, far in the future, you will gradually without even noticing it, live your way into the answer (6).

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps I am in that future where I can live my way into the answer.
(1) Ford, Dennis. The Search for Meaning: A Short History. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press 2007, 4.
(2) Aarelaid-Tart, Aili. “Avoiding Uncertainty by Making Past Usable.” TRAMES: A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences 14.4 (2010): 411-426.
(3) Langer, Susanne. K. (1982). Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982 (87, 90).
(4) Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Quoted in: Molly Maxfield, et al. “COMMENTARY: On the Unique Psychological Import of the Human Awareness of Mortality: Theme and Variations.” Psychological Inquiry 17.4 (2006): 328-356.
(5) Aarelaid-Tart, Ibid.
(6) Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Random House, 1984, 34–35.


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