Wednesday, January 6, 2010

That's the way...

It went down like this: I deployed one of my trusty carrots in a kindergarten class this morning--a rubber balloon--, only this time I inflated it and taped it on the wall over the board. The idea being that any kid whose name made it into the balloon drawn on the board could get that very balloon. Kids are very concrete so having the prize almost literally floating over their heads helps them focus. Anyway, we played our games and drilled our vocabulary, and I gave stickers to the winning team. And then the Large Ethical Conundrum walked in the room.

Or rather, up to the board. It was the usual rush of small hands vying to "help teacher" with his supplies and books and the like, plus the usual flutter of big hands batting away the small hands so teacher could get his things himself. And then three of the little ones started pointing up and chanting, "Buh-lun! Buh-lun!" I had not named the prize winner and giving it now to anyone was just an act of desperation so I could get out of the room and they could have lunch. I looked from one face to the next, trying to break the stare of six small almond eyes looking at the buh-lun by looking through me. The default winner--a bit of a teacher's pet, but worthy of the name--is Belinda. And yet Elmo had done so well after a brief sour-puss spell. Then again, giving the balloon to Carrie this time might be the trick to motivate her out of mediocrity. Who? Whom?! I reached for the balloon to give it to Elmo, and then a very funny thing happened.

The balloon popped! The tape tore a small hole in it as I pulled it from the wall and the next instant it was a cold tatters on the floor. The six almond eyes were at a loss, as were the three small mouths below them. I braced myself for a bout of crossed arms and pouting lips, but then another funny thing happened: I laughed. And I laughed some more. And then the three little mouths broke into small laughter with me. And in their laughter I heard deep wisdom.

Only moments before they had pinned their hopes (the next five minutes' worth, at least) on getting that balloon. Then, in the very act of its coming to them, it burst! Gone! Over! What a loss! And yet they saw me laughing. Somehow it reminded, or assured, them that in fact it's not such a big loss after all. For the fun of seeing a balloon pop in teacher's hand somehow outweighed the satisfaction of getting that balloon for the day.

How many times do we live with our eyes on a balloon floating just up ahead--and then it pops, and "our life is ruined"? On the other hand, how often do we simply "shut u and laugh" when our little balloons burst before our eyes? I submit that there is a direct correlation between how we weigh those two questions on a daily basis and how happy we are on a daily basis. As Jacques Maritain notes in an essay on Human Immortality, on the one hand we realize that nothing is more precious than even a single human life, but on the other hand we live recklessly with our own lives to seize risk after risk. Why are we so cavalier with what we know is such a priceless treasure? For no less pellucid a reason, says Maritain, than that we know we are immortal: death is an episode, not a terminus. On the one hand, we sense the immense value of a human life because it is an immortal principle of unique personhood. On the other hand, we are consistently reckless and pioneering with the immense value of our lives because they are immortal principles of unique personhood. Balloons pop. Get over it. Now laugh! Be wise like foolish children: go for the balloon and say Thank You when you get it and laugh all the way home when you lose it. Otherwise, you are just a balloon, fragile and hollow, ready to burst at any moment; or, filled with laughter, ever-filling with the breath of life.

Strange as it may seem, we are born more "tangled up in blue" than we will ever be later in life. Life is a progressive unraveling of the genetic, cultural, psychological, and spiritual ball of yarn which went into weaving of on the loom of Providence. Despite its apparent immaturity and powerlessness, a newborn child is an inconceivably dense knot of potential, and its maturation is a regimented process of fundamental decomplexification by way of modalized complexification––a steady trimming of brilliant but ever-lost loose ends and a not-always-so-steady healing of hard knots deep within. We become more complex in increasingly narrow ways so that we may be simpler in a fundamental way. The infinitely complex potential of what an infant could write gradually refines into what the infant must learn to write (a native language), and then more finely into a unique penmanship, and finally into a strikingly unique "voice" which every writer must find (even though every adult of course has one). To be a human-knot is not to be not-a-human but to be too-much-of-a-human in a single body so small. As the Daodejing (or, The Book of the Way of Power) says,

"含德之厚,比於赤子。… 骨弱筋柔而握固。未知牝牡之合而全作,精之至也。終日號而不嗄,和之至也。
(The impunity of things fraught with the “power” May be likened to that of an infant. … Its bones are soft, its sinews weak; but its grip is strong. Not yet to have known the union of male and female, but to be completely formed, Means that the vital force is at its height; To be able to scream all day without getting hoarse Means that the harmony is at its perfection.)"

This of course goes a long way towards the defense of all unborn humans. We have no way of knowing what amazing potential we are depriving ourselves of by "flushing" away an inconvenient fetus that puts a kink (!) in our own comfort. We know the temptation of regressing to our infantile knot-state when we say things like we "just want to curl up" and sleep. By contrast, we know the challenge of being Homo erectus sapiens precisely in having to stand straight and having to untangle irrationality into rational life-lines. The Daodejing goes on,

(If the heart makes calls upon the life-breath, rigidity follows. Whatever has a time of vigour also has a time of decay. Such things are against Tao, And whatever is against Tao is soon destroyed.)"

An obstetrician was once asked by a colleague about a difficult case. "The mother has syphillis, the family is destitute, and her current pregnancy will be the sixth child they have to raise. What do you recommend?" Without a pause, the obstetrician said, "Abort it." Nearly as quickly his colleague replied, "Well, you would have just aborted Beethoven." Abortion is a dominant way in our age by which the knotted may protect themselves, and therefore works against the great life project of unknotting ourselves so we may be limpid strings to be strummed in the universal harmony. Abortion is a hallowed "technique" by which the reigning generation may tighten themselves around themselves, instead of unraveling some of their life-thread for the good of a new, uniquely vital knot woven by them. It is nothing less than how "the heart makes a call upon the life-breath," whereupon, being against the Way, rigidity and decay follow.

Prayer is the way we untangle out life-knot so that we may be refilled with that Breath on a regular basis. A sealed balloon can only lose whatever air it has, slowly or in a sudden rupture. Paradoxically, only a balloon that is wide open––that literally can't keep itself together––can be refilled. I think this "ties into" St. Augustine's description of sin as a curvatus in se––an inward curvature on oneself. Like an intractable knot, those of us most "complete" in and of ourselves are also those least open to the fresh air others––and the great Other––might blow into us. It is precisely by letting go of our little "love-me knots" that we both face the perpetual risk of leaking and withering in our own power and enjoy the privilege of being filled anew in ever-novel ways.

No comments: