March 8, 2011

Seeing the World as it Is

The butterflies no longer flock to my daughter.

When Clare was four, her daycare center hatched some butterflies in a small screen tent.  On the day they released them, I came to pick Clare up on the playground and saw her standing very still with an ear-to-ear grin and a half-dozen butterflies all over herself.  “They just went to her,” her teachers said.  The same thing happened whenever we visited a butterfly house:  without any particular effort on her part, Clare would attract Lepidoptera like she exuded nectar.

I don’t know why, but it doesn’t happen any more.  Maybe some essence of baby innocence that once rose up from her no longer wafts from the self-conscious first-grader she has become.  She tries, and my heart aches as I watch her patiently holding out a finger to the unresponsive insects, taut with wanting and, ultimately, deflated with disappointment.

That disappointment has colored the whole butterfly house experience.  She still makes a beeline for them, but now there is a veil of wishing and remembering between her and her surroundings.  A part of the Garden is lost, and that loss has imparted its flavor to what remains.

We experience, not the world around us, but our thoughts and feelings about that world.  So often I have revisited old haunts, trying in vain to recapture the feelings I had when I was first in those places years ago. Not only could I not feel as I had in the past, I couldn’t enjoy the places in the present.  In his first memoir, Kirk Douglas described going back to Paris after the war and finding it not as exciting as when he was stationed there.  He realized that he was actually seeking his twenty-two-year-old self—who was, of course, not there to be found.

I wonder if the apostles felt the same way about the places they had been with Jesus after Jesus was gone?  Did they see the streets of Jerusalem as they appeared when they walked them with their teacher, or as they actually were in the present?  How long did they see through disciples’ eyes before their Apostles’ eyes finally opened?

One evening, while walking up Nicollet Avenue to my apartment in Minneapolis, I heard an African American man’s voice behind me sigh heavily–“What a day, what a day!” he said.  That sounded like an invitation to talk, so I turned around and introduced myself, and we walked together up the main street of that part of the city–a street I thought I knew, but realized as we walked that I didn’t.  As I, a white graduate student in classical music, walked with this black working man, I saw a whole different street around us, one I had never seen before. People I had never before noticed greeted us–black people, Lakotas, urban working people, people who must have been there before but whom I had never seen.  My frame of reference had not included them–but my companion’s frame, which I was temporarily sharing, did.

I ended up walking about a mile past my street, so fascinating was the experience–and I’m sure it could not have happened if I’d had any emotional investment in things being a certain way.  Because I didn’t, a simple shift of frame made the invisible present to me; if I had, nothing in the world could have made me see what had always been there.

On the second Bob Newhart show—the one set in Vermont—Newhart’s character explained to his wife why his disappointment over some particular aspect of their new lives as innkeepers (I can’t remember what it was, now) impaired his ability to enjoy their situation as a whole.  He told her about being taken to the circus as a kid in the expectation that there would be tigers there.  There weren’t any, and his disappointment blighted the whole experience for him.  “Well, that was childish!” said his wife.  “I was a child!” he replied.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways.[i]

I’m sure that Clare will get over her disappointment about the butterflies, and I’m sure I will, too. Sooner or later, she will stop wanting so badly for them to come back. I suppose that one of two things will then happen:  1) they will come back, because her desire is no longer driving them away.  (If you doubt that this happens, try to remember the process of finding a prom date; is anything more off-putting than a desperate desire to be asked?  The whole universe works this way, I’m sure of it.)  Or, 2) she will be happy to view the butterflies where they are.  Either way, her wishes for the future and memories of the past will no longer contaminate her experience in the present.

As infants, we are undifferentiated from our parents, our world, and God. We are unselfconscious. We are totally dependent, and all our needs are met.  Everything is new and astonishing to us.  We experience our surroundings with great immediacy. Good and evil have no meaning.  The mythic analog is the Garden of Eden; my butterfly-spangled daughter still had one foot there.

As we grow, we individuate and differentiate ourselves as we become self-conscious.  As we grow in experience, our world loses its newness, and we begin to classify things, viewing everything through the lens of what we remember and anticipate.  We must increasingly meet our own needs.  We have eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and been expelled from the Garden.  The medieval world reckoned this as happening around the age of seven, when, having reached full verbal competence and the Church’s “age of accountability,” the child was considered morally responsible. The mythic analog is the Fall; my daughter is undergoing it now.

When we are able to see things as they are rather than as our distorting desires make them appear, we reunite with God on an adult level, combining the trust and boundarylessness of infancy with the (relative) wisdom of adulthood.  We are “born again.”  The biblical/mythic analog is the “new heaven and new earth” promised in the Book of Revelation.[ii]

And that’s something to hope for:  the veils drop away, and we no longer have a chattering monkey-mind full of judging and desire between our inner selves and creation. Even if heaven and earth aren’t actually new then, they will be new to us, because we will experience them for the first time.  And if Paul is right, while we struggle to pierce the veil, we can be sure that it obscures the view only in one direction; though we strive to know God, God already knows us:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.[iii]

[i] 1 Corinthians 13:11

[ii] Revelation 21

[iii] 1 Corinthians 13:12

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