“Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.” – Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I’ve been thinking recently about straws. As in, the one that broke the camel’s back. I was recently queried on the subject by a friend: What was that last straw, the one that pushed me over the edge, the one that transformed me from devout Christian and dedicated minister to…well…whatever I am now?
I say “whatever” because, beyond my general dislike of labels, I honestly don’t know which one to apply to myself these days. The straws make it so. I’m not comfortable with the term “atheist,” at least not in my particular case, not yet. I’m not sure what “agnostic” even means, again in my particular case. Does it mean I’m between choices, or that I choose to eschew choices as inconsequential, or that I simply acknowledge that some things are beyond understanding, and therefore beyond choosing? As Gandalf said to Bilbo, “Good morning” can mean any number of things…
So, back to that straw…
I’ll tell you what I told her: I don’t really think in terms of final straws, only present ones. Change is progressive, it is evolution on a personal, existential level. And life, rightly understood, is change. In other words, life is full of straws, and each one pushes me a little farther toward the true ME, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, sometimes forward, sometimes back, but always toward my own full realization as an individual and a human being. Think of it this way: I am a ship, and life, experience, is my rudder.
Furthermore, there are no value judgments here–there are neither good straws nor bad–there are simply straws, lots of straws, everywhere and in everything. The value of the straw is determined not by its nature, but by what is done with it. Often, we assume a straw is bad because the outcome of our encounter with it is painful or traumatic, destructive even. Conversely, we judge a straw good because the upshot of meeting it is pleasurable, leading to happiness and joy, personal fulfillment…whatever. But this false dichotomy is rooted in a flawed understanding of happiness, joy, and fulfillment. It interprets each as feeling rather than as state of being.
True happiness requires passage through pain, as surely as light without darkness has no meaning, as certainly as good cannot be understood in the absence of evil. True happiness is found only in self-realization–happiness is fulfillment, and fulfillment is happiness–and both together are the source of real joy. Real joy comes not only with success, but with having overcome failure (which is a success in its own right); without failure, indeed, success itself has no meaning, no identity, no ultimate purpose. We must fail in order to succeed.
So, again, straws are value-neutral; straws are straws, nothing more. Sometimes they comfort and sustain; sometimes they hurt like hell; sometimes they even destroy. None of this is either inherently good or inherently bad. The straws are the forest fires of our souls, gutting as a means of rebirth, regrowth, rejuvenation; at the same time, they are the rains by which the flames are extinguished, offering relief and respite from the blaze. Life and death operate in tandem, symbiotically, within the straws. Structures are simultaneously demolished and rebuilt, razed and raised, as we encounter each successive straw that is thrown into our path.
Once we understand this about the straws, we begin to see the bigger picture of which we are but a tiny part, a pixel lost in a sea of pixels. Our lives, finite as they are, are both inconsequential and of the greatest consequence imaginable. Darwin, Locke, Aquinas, Augustine, Hitler, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Lucrezia Borgia: each of these individuals shared a common temporality–here for only a brief period, in cosmic terms. And yet, each one left behind an indelible legacy, for good or for ill, that in its turn has become part of the warp and woof of human experience. And these are only the great names. How many lesser known personages have wandered momentarily across the stage, unknown and unhailed, but still vital pieces in the jigsaw of past, present, and future? What about each of us, whose contribution may seem insignificant as we make it, but which, whether appreciated or not, inevitably becomes a part of the accumulated knowledge (not to say wisdom) of our race?
The straws are the basic ingredients of who we are and what we believe, the building blocks of philosophy, religion, social and political theory. But that in itself is not enough. It is not sufficient to select the cumulative results of another person’s journey through the straws, as if doing so offers a shortcut through our own. To do this is to fundamentally misunderstand the straws and their nature and purpose. It is not enough to look to the Bible and those who wrote it (or the Qu’ran, or the Bhagavad Gita, or The New York Times) and allow these thoughts to become an impenetrable frame encapsulating our existence; it is not enough to be socialist, capitalist, Christian, atheist, Jew, Muslim, Democrat or Republican, as a prearranged program for living. It is not enough to look to these systems for answers, because they are each themselves questions demanding to be asked. They are each themselves straws.
It is ours to take up these straws, examine them, evaluate them, listen to the questions they ask of us, and then pass them on to the next person through the filter of our experience. But even then, the process is not done, for not only do we walk among the straws, we are straws ourselves: our lives, our words, our actions, our thoughts, our particular way of viewing this complex web we call reality. We are straws; this is the most vital truth of all straw theory. We deal in straws, and by dealing in them, we become them. We become thoughts and opinions and deeds to be taken up and digested by succeeding generations, so that they might in their turn become straws for the next. We. Are. Straws.
Everything is a straw, and all things result from encounters with straws. And still, they are so easy to miss. Awareness is everything; one must be alert and awake in order to see and understand the straws for what they are. This requires attention to detail: the little things are often the most important and meaningful. Handshakes with strangers; a smile across a crowded room; words shot into cyberspace on Internet wings–relationships all, connections made almost subconsciously, quickly forgotten but never quite eradicated. A small bird on a high branch, swaying in the warm, summer breeze; a ray of sunshine, echoing in the fading light of day’s end, and catching the eye at just that angle, that cannot be ignored and cannot be erased. Memories built upon the smallest of foundations, and yet which, in the end, come together to make us who we are, and without which “we” would not (could not) be.
Straw theory, indeed! If it serves no other purpose than setting itself up in order to be knocked down; if it provokes nothing in the reader but ridicule and a growing conviction that my madness is progressive; if it sits, even, and is never read, but becomes only a persistent pothole on the information highway–even then, this post stands as the result of straws I have stumbled on along the way, and a new straw of my own making. It is one interpretation of the straws, and a straw in need of interpretation. And so the pathway winds and widens, each thought, expressed or unspoken, adding to its breadth and its length, and along its unfolding way, human consciousness grows and matures, indefinitely.
Life is my bucket list. And that bucket is full of straws.