The human brain contains structures and shapes that may have up to 11 dimensions. (Photo: Blue Brain)
Being baffled, confused, incredulous, angry, outraged—those are the emotions that I feel and hear more than ever before. Going through the Slow Muse archive, I found a few segments from a post in 2015, Identity, Universality and the Search for Meaning. I share some of that here again since it still feels particularly relevant and, yes, useful.
Lily King‘s novel Euphoria is a historical novel based in New Guinea during the early 1930s about anthropologists Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and her future partner Gregory Bateson. As pioneers in their field, they are eager to crack the code of how human society and culture are mapped. They felt they might “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” The character Nell (based on Mead) craves that rare moment of euphoria when she first feels she truly understands a place. “We’re always, in everything we do in this world, limited by subjectivity,” she says. “But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl…The key is to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is ‘natural.’ ” She observes that at about two months into a new environment, the culture begins to make sense. “It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”
This runs alongside a thoughtful passage from the writer George Saunders in a conversation with Jennifer Egan in the New York Times:
We are coming to believe that our minds are entirely sufficient to understand the universe in its entirety. This means a shrinking respect for mystery—religion vanishing as a meaningful part of our lives (or being used, in its fundamentalist forms, to beat back mystery, rather than engage it); an increasing acceptance that if something is “effective” (profitable, stockholder-enhancing), then that answers all questions of its morality. This insistence on the literal and provable and data-based and pragmatic leaves us, I think, only partly human.
To round out this meditation on how hard it is to make sense of our world, present and past, I have one more excerpt to share. This is from a review by Irshad Manji of two books, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, and Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Jonathan Sacks:
Enter Jonathan Sacks, a former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his sobering yet soul-stirring new book, “Not in God’s Name,” Sacks confronts “politicized religious extremism” and diagnoses that cancer crisply: “The 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning. Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning.” Given that “no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion,” and given that believers are proliferating, Sacks predicts that the next 100 years will be more religious than the last. Bottom line: Any cure for violence in God’s name will have to work with religion as a fact of life.
That is where Sacks’s brilliance as a theologian radiates. He thinks two matters need tackling. There is “identity without universality,” or solidarity only with one’s group. Then there is “universality without identity,” the unbearable lightness of humans in a transactional but not transcendent world. Sacks wants to preserve the joy of participating in something bigger than the self while averting the hostility to strangers that goes with tribal membership…Meanwhile, back at liberal democracy’s ranch, we must “insist on the simplest moral principle of all…If you seek respect, you must give respect.” This does not mean always having to agree, but it does mean viewing one another as worthy of candid, constructive engagement.
Which brings me back to praising and holding strong with the Zen concept of the “don’t know mind.” In art making, in politics, in relationships, in our incessant search for meaning, that is a way of being that keeps us curious, open and willing to consider. Simple, yes. Easy, no.