Tag Archives: human nature

The Antlered Branch _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part 13

December 23, 2013

By the time I finally leave the house with Allegro and make my way to Aquatic Park to go look for what Oisín and the others have left for me there, it is around 5 PM. I certainly had no expectation of anything in return when I first agreed to make my place their own. I am still just as surprised as moved that they’d secure some kind of manifest world object for me to show their gratitude. I still know little about what is possible in the otherworld, but imagine that moving physical objects to specific locations is no small matter, and it is even possible that it would take tens to hundreds of otherworld people to accomplish such a thing depending on the size of the object. Even now, I have no idea how they did it.

The walk is quiet and uneventful. Hardly a manifest person is around. The water laps softly along its bank, the birds’ songs are muted, and the trees stand silent and resolute against the sky which is slowly darkening into ever more mysterious shades of twilight. This has always been my favorite time of day. As a child, I used to cherish my time outside when the sun’s light, glowing like ebbing flame starkly against the night’s deepening presence, revealed to me a world of image that usually was lost to me. Often, I’d stand precariously on the back of a swing in the yard, frightening my parents for sure, but too immersed in the ecstatic wonder of suddenly illuminated shapes and outlined objects to care much at all about something more earthly, like safety. Besides, I reasoned as only a six year old can, I had excellent balance. I could not as well leave this brilliant light behind just to heed adults who wished me to come inside.

As with then, the fading light fills me with a silent, quiet, wild joy and I still imagine myself laughing and leaping and flying through that light, which is filling every space around me now with its mystery. I walk through this wondrous world, tracking the shadows in the wooded areas to my left where I found the picnic table that I am trying to locate again.

An older man, who I met once before in passing and know is quite lonely, says hello to me and I ask whether he knows if I’m near the turn off to the table. I think I am, because there are lights above and beyond the brightly infused sky flashing in the trees at this spot. But finding a picnic table while offroading with a guide dog is a hit or miss project. He assures me I am in fact close by, and asks if I don’t mind some company. I look around and don’t see Oisín nearby, so I agree that we can talk for a little while.

The two of us sit across from each other as he shares some of his life with me and I listen. A half an hour goes by, and now I do see Oisín standing at the edge of the clearing. I send him a picture of the situation, and he says not to worry, he’ll stay until the stranger leaves. So finally I say to the manifest man, “I am really enjoying talking to you, but I have to meet someone now. Can I be alone?”

I briefly wonder, as there are no other manifest people within sight range to speak of, if the man might think I’ve had enough and am just trying to back out of talking to someone twice my age. Fortunately, he turns out to be happy to grant me my request for solitude without question, and doesn’t appear to be taking it personally. When he leaves, Oisín walks over to stand beside me.

“There are a great many trees around here,” he observes, “So I thought to come show you to the one I spoke of yesterday.” This is true enough. Together we walk over to a tree which is at a diagonal from where I was previously sitting.
Once I am standing in front of the tree, Oisín vanishes, presumably so I can discover for myself what he’s left there for me. I have to admit that I am now feeling a bit like a kid on a treasure hunt. No point in ignoring the curiosity of my inner child now, I decide.

Cautiously, unsure if I’m looking for something sturdy or fragile, I reach out my hand. The tree is eucalyptus, like every other of its myriad cousins in this area. But the branch my hand encounters is not only very detached from the tree, but is actually made of Oak. It is placed rather impossibly around the trunk, and to this day I haven’t been able to get anything else to stay up there. I’ve tried, I admit.

Antler Branch On Wall

I take the branch down from the tree. It’s big! From one end to another is approximately two feet across. There is a section of branch which is just the right size to fit my hand around. Holding it there, the rest of the branch splits into two halves that arc away from each other in a kind of narrow semicircle. On each end, two twigs stem out giving the whole of it an uncanny resemblance to deer antlers.

I know the significance of deer to Oisín’s immediate family. His father, his son, and himself were all named for this animal, after all. As a totem animal, a concept from a culture which Oisín’s clan would have never known existed, deer are usually symbolic of inner gentleness and compassion, as well as protection. I mean, that can be quite true of them and everything, but deer aren’t like that all the time! They’re also wild, fiercely territorial and adaptable, resourceful, and don’t hesitate to answer to a challenge. When I have looked into Oisín’s eyes, I have seen all these things, and more of course. I for one think that if a totem is going to give insight into the spirit of a person,, it’s probably best to recognize that nonhuman animals can have natures as complicated as any human. I digress, however.

I imagine that if clan Baiscne, to whom Oisín belongs, had a family emblem, I am holding a representation of it in my hand. I have too many thoughts and feelings occurring at once. I am astonished and happy and wondering how many people it took to get this branch here—it’s so big. I am moved by how one physical object could convey so much meaning to me. If I had ever worried about being accepted, it looks like that worry is both unreasonable and I not only belong, but somehow have been accepted into Oisín’s family. This realization overwhelms me. It would be hard to believe if I weren’t holding tangible proof of it.

Equally overwhelming, however, is that, as I gaze at the branch in my hands, it seems to emit a soft, continuous glow, as if the very wood could radiate that divine spark at the heart of itself out into the changing clay world. This is all quite enough to take in, so I do what I usually do when I have more energy than I know what to do with: I choose a direction and take off. Full of a wild inexplicable joy that seems to suddenly come upon me, I gather up Allegro and we walk so fast that we are practically running. I’ve never run with a flashlight, having never had the need for one, but the blazing light around the antlered branch in my hand illuminates the night, casting bright shapes across the landscape. Sometimes, when I look through the middle where the branch splits in two, I feel like I am almost catching someone’s eye. I definitely do not feel like I am walking alone. There are no manifest people in the park at the moment. Somehow everything around us holds still, while we, myself and what feels like many who I cannot see but seem to be with me, traverse the trail back to my apartment. I, or perhaps we, make it home in record time, and the whole return journey has oddly felt effortless.

Once I walk through the door into the kitchen, I carefully set the branch down while I go get a vase from above the refrigerator to place it in. This is not because it needs to be placed in water, but just because I can’t think of another way to make sure it won’t fall or get broken. I’m trying to grab a glass vase precariously from a cupboard which is slightly too high for me to actually reach safely. But I’m in a great mood and not alone. This means I’m determined to attempt to accomplish what I’m aiming to do successfully, since I feel I can do just about anything at the moment.

“Don’t do that, you’ll get yourself hurt,” someone is saying with concern, and when I turn around I see Oisin standing behind me.

“You think so?” I ask cautiously, “I think I can reach up there. I’ve done it once or twice before.”

“Well, it’s not a great idea for what you are aiming to do at the moment. Are you sure you are not actually trying to do something again beyond your limits to prove to yourself that you are worthy of our company?” Oisín asks, challenging me with his compassionate, yet wildly fierce eyes. “We want you safe, child.”

Is that what I was really trying to do, I ask myself a bit reluctantly? Well, okay, yes that was a substantial if far from explicit part of my motivation. It would be too awkward and self-defeating to deceive myself into thinking otherwise.

“Thanks,” I say, and grab a chair from the kitchen table to stand on. The particular vase I need, it turns out, is behind a bunch of other smaller vases and would have been impossible to grab from my earlier vantage point on the floor. I am growing, even now, but I just have to remember that won’t translate into physical height.

The antlered branch is still shining with otherworldly light where I’ve placed it on the counter. It’s amazing in its own right, but perhaps more, well, awesome still is that I have become like family to Oisín and the fianna. I am trying to integrate this into my world and it’s happening very slowly. Attempting to sort out my thoughts, one in particular suddenly comes unbidden into the forefront of my mind. Is it possible, the thought interjects, that I have always been a part of this family and just don’t know it for certain yet? How else to explain why I’ve felt like Oisín is a long lost grandfather? Why else does he call me child? But I can’t even entertain the idea. I almost desperately shove the thought out of my head so that I don’t have to possibly face another instance in so many days of my beliefs being turned upside down.

So instead, I turn to Oisín to thank him properly. In response, he simply fills the room with light. We are, I realize, speaking without words. And in the silence there is understanding, of what is, which words don’t ever seem to capture adequately. I’m glad that I can let go of trying to put everything into language and can communicate through wordlessness. This wordlessness is, I am beginning to realize, the grammar of being, it is why silence is intelligent, and how existence speaks for itself.

In Defense of Imperfection _ Part 1

Whenever you wake up into your own skin and realize you are no longer less than, small, that you deserve to take up space, it is a very strange feeling.  It’s like realizing that though you once were just a seed, you are now a tree with fruits and flowers, part of the vast network of growing things.  When you were just a seed, you thought growing was impossible. If you were small and unsure like I was, you might stare at a tall oak with it’s rooted, thoughtful self confidence, and respond with: “I’ll be that?  Yeah right!”  But when you fully arrive at being here now, once growing has begun, there is room to meet change with joy along with the ever present fear of uncertainty that winds around the perimeter of the shape of our lives.  And it seems not the case that the fear is of failure to thrive and become and the joy is for succeeding at your dreams, but that both happen in response to the possibility of success.  This is because, I think, success and achievement are often thought to be the same as perfection.  On the contrary, I hope to show that, in important ways, the need to be perfect (whether as a person or at doing something) ultimately leads to failure.

 

Human growing is probably a lot more involved and painful than plant growing.  I imagine myself with a classroom full of students, my students, and feel like the seed or perhaps like a tiny plant that could be crushed at any moment.  I think, yeah right.  But what else is it to come into our own?  What else is it to be a powerful change in the world? 

 

I look at the book I’m reading for my dissertation, Alasdir McIntyre’s “Dependent Rational Animals.”  I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information swarming my head.  Questions like: is there a human nature?  Are there virtues that can serve humans in flourishing no matter their culture?  Is it really natural for us to form communities of giving and receiving?  Can we make sense of an Aquinian vision of pity (uggghhh, I prefer sympathy or identification) or compassion, in a new context, one that does not involve God (the Christian God especially) but involves our nature as such? 

 

Are we essentially good?  Is it possible or even a good idea for us to rid ourselves of our most primitive instincts in order to act with practical rationality and wisdom, or does wisdom need instinct, can it not survive without acknowledged desire, feeling, and well-directed passion?  I for one am not sure it can.  I doubt that practical rationality, even when coupled with emotional balance, if there is no awareness of and way to express basic human instincts, will ever be wise.  Many people think that we have perfected ourselves by not following or even acknowledging our instincts.  Yet if I am right, our imperfect instincts not only make us human but allow us to develop an honest assessment of ourselves which is essential to living virtuously.

 

What shapes who we are and how much?  I think about cultures, histories, identities, values and their justifications, empirical findings about human psychology, biological truths about the relation between us and other animals, our patterns that throughout time have proved nearly unbreakable.  I stare at the tangled mess of millennia of human action and behavior and it’s theoretical, moral, and then down the road practical impact and doubt I can do much of anything at all.  There are the arguments, and then there are the actual changes to be made. As long as I am confounded by the arguments and feel that whatever actions I might take to make a difference won’t be right, acceptable, the correct solution, I might do nothing at all. It seems that doing nothing is a much greater failure than is trying to make a difference without going about it perfectly.

 

I know it is one step at a time, but feeling so useless is terrifying.  Or perhaps realizing that I could be dangerously useful is terrifying.  Or perhaps the fact that I have not had the courage to stand alone with my thoughts and start to get involved with the question, with the answer, is terrifying. 

 

When you begin, you cannot go back.  You can keep a seed out of the ground, but put it in and once it sprouts, barring extenuating circumstances, there is no stopping it from becoming the plant or tree it is.  It stands there, with a lot of other living things in an ecosystem of which it is an integral part, and yet it forever stands alone. 

 

It is so firmly rooted.  What is more, it is exactly what it is and doesn’t lie.  Coming across an oak tree, you don’t stop and shake your head and wonder if you’re really looking at a redwood that was trying to pass as an oak tree, pretending to be something it wasn’t.  People would probably benefit greatly from taking a course on life from trees: how to stand, how to stay grounded, how to keep what is valuable at the center, how to bend in the wind, how to reach toward the light, how to be fully present, fully themselves, how to be honest, how to contribute what they can to a nest, how to shade others from the glaring sun, how to gain sustenance from light, how to let go of parts of themselves that are no longer useful in the fall, how to blossom. 

 

But in any case, whoever I am, there is no changing that now.  Not on grand scales anyway.  If I become an ethicist, a professor, a teacher, a creative writer, I’ll have to burst out of this shell and become something.  This means making a mark on the world.  This means of course responsibility.  Should I be held responsible for my good intentions and all their amazing and disastrous outcomes and be left standing, like the tree weathering storms? 

 

First, I suppose I have to be a little better at shouldering criticism.  Second, I need to be a little bit better at believing in myself.  But the irony of growing is that it doesn’t happen by rationally thinking it over until the right course comes along.  A plant doesn’t contemplate the pros and cons of growing one way rather than another and then act accordingly.  It is a process that it both creates and witnesses.  This is true for humans too, I think. 

 

We become confident, immune to misplaced criticism, graceful around well-deserved criticism, and able to believe in ourselves by living, by doing.  And so it is in the throwing roots down and growing which ever way we do that we grow into ourselves, that we gain the qualities and values we want.  It is not by contemplating the things we long for until we are perfectly certain that we have a fully fool-proof rational course to embark on, that we can finally walk the road of life. So perhaps if we instead try for a straight and narrow course we will in a sense fail, we will fail to grow at all because we are too afraid of making mistakes or not being good enough.  It is like the saying goes, sitting on the edge of the river afraid to jump in because you might be a terrible swimmer, or forget how to float, or get snagged on a log, or get stuck in an eddy, or never learn to let go. 

 

More imperfect arguments to come.