Thursday, October 1, 2009

What do you see when you turn out the lights?

I heard of a "guru" nearby who leads his congregants through a fascinating exercise. He asks each member of the group to make a list of the ten most important things, aspects or qualities of their lives and rank them in order of significance. Participants come up with items such as: my spouse, my children, my musical talent, my painting ability, my stamp collection, my job or my ability to work, etc... There are no particular rules about what can be on the list. The items just have to be your way of expressing the most precious aspects of your life.

Then the guru has them work up the list meditating on: "What would happen if that was taken away from you? How would you feel? How would you cope? How would you go on?" It's an exercise that takes most of the day, and requires the participants to reflect deeply as each item is torn away. And they are left to ponder: "What is left when the entire list is gone?"

When I heard of this I thought it was a great exercise because this is exactly what life does to each of us. Whether gradually or suddenly life takes away pretty much everything we have and everything we are.

Think about it. At some point everyone we care for will die - or we will die - either way those relationships are lost. Age takes away our physical abilities. We lose our vitality and health. Our limbs lose strength. We lose our ability to play, to ski, to skate, to run. We lose our beauty. We lose our voices and our ability to sing. We lose our agility to play musical instruments with the finesse we once did.

Our eyes grow weaker so we can no longer read. We lose the ability to work, to earn money. We lose our money one way or another - we can't take it with us no matter how wealthy we may be at the end. Nor can any amount of money push off death forever.

Life eventually strips us bare with no hope of reprieve in this world.

So are we left with nothing then? Isn't there some final "essence" about us that nothing can touch? Is there anything to show for our voyage through this life?

That's an important question. Answering it should be the goal of our spiritual lives. I think that's what the philosopher meant when he said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." As Steven Covey says, we might spend our lives climbing a ladder only to discover when we arrive at the top, that it was propped against the wrong wall.

In my quest for an answer I've come to a couple of conclusions, half-baked as they may be for now. The first comes from my sister who was once told that in dying we take nothing with us. Her response was that this is not true. She said, "We take our character with us. We take into our grave and beyond whatever character we've formed during this life."

I see her point and agree. Finally, we are left with ourselves. With who we are. With what we've become through our choices in life. If I take a line from those gurus of my youth, Lennon and McCartney: "What do you see when you turn out the light? I can't tell you but I know it's mine."

I thought that was 'the answer,' but now I've seen that it leads to a more important insight. For our personal identity is by and of itself, ironically, meaningless.

When the lights go out if I'm left with only myself - if I'm totally alone and have only my individual life remaining - then I am in a bad way. I have no ability to know who I am. Where I am. What I am. Or even that I am. Nor do I have any hope of determining anything as I have nothing for refernce.

If a single point exists in an endless void of nothing, then there is no way to know anything about that point. Is it large? Is it small? Is it moving? Is it facing up? Down? Does if have a shape? We can know nothing about it without some frame of reference around it - some measuring system that exists beyond it.

Likewise, our selves - our identities, our being, our character - cannot exist in a void of aloneness. Unless we exist within some sort of community we become totally irrelevant and without meaning. Our very existence becomes impossible to prove. Illogical, as Mr. Spock might say.

Then I realized that thankfully, when the lights go out, I am not alone. There is always an overarching Presence that provides the frame of reference. I am eternally part of a communion with God, who in and of himself is also a tri-union of being (that we struggle to understand as Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and in another sense, he/she is an entire communion of (potentially) every human who has ever lived.

So, to give Lennon and McCartney the last word: "I just need someone to love."


London Mabel said...

Unless you're a lobster. Then you don't age.

Good news: Your mind will go too, so you won't even be left with a consciousness of your self!


gmc said...

You annihilationist! ;-) I prefer to think that as my physical mind goes away my concsiousness actually becomes aware of the larger reality that surrounds us unseen all the time.

I imagine it like a cloak of invisibility ;-) that will shimmer and start to become transparent as our physical curtain dissolves.

What looks like death here is actually birth "elsewhere..." mimicking our first birth - like Carolyn Arends sings of:

We've Been Waiting For You

Let me hold you close, I know you're frightened
Go ahead and cry, I understand
You were safe and you were warm
And then suddenly without a warning things began to change

It must have been so strange
To all at once be traveling a journey
All the way to this delivery room

But baby, you are not alone
No, your room is ready, let's go home
You're gonna like it here
Let me make it clear that

We've been waiting for you
We're so glad you came
We've been looking forward
To showing you the place
There's so much in store and
We've been waiting for you

I know it can take
Some getting used to
But this old world is
Where you're meant to be

Life is something not to miss
Oh, the taste of ice cream, your first kiss
And when love takes your hand
You will understand why

We've been waiting for you
We're so glad you came
We've been looking forward
To showing you the place
There's so much in store and
We've been waiting for you

Watching you come into this world
Baby, you've made me believe
Another journey awaits us
So when I have to leave

I am pretty sure that I'll be frightened
But even if I cry, please understand
I will know I'm not alone
When my room is ready, I'll go home
And when I reach the gate
I'm gonna hear them saying

We've been waiting for you
We're so glad you came
We've been looking forward
To showing you the place
There's so much in store and
We've been waiting for you

YouTube with this song...