Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Epiphany: You Matter

I. Take Yourself Seriously

I started reading Augustine's Confessions last night, for the first time in fifteen years. (I had to run out to the used bookstore to buy a copy, having jettisoned most of my books six years ago.)

With distance, I see in a way I couldn't see at the time why I loved him so much: for the cumulative effect of his insistence that you take yourself seriously; that you think--hard--about who you are and what you do, and why;
that in fact, you matter.

[From a visual journal I kept when first studying Augustine, 1993]
"The power of memory is great, very great, my God. It is a vast and infinite profundity. ...This power is that of my mind, but I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am. ...This moves me to great astonishment. Amazement grips me. People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, the revolution of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested."
--Augustine's Confessions, Book X: Memory

II. The Obscure Consolation of Original Sin *

I'd been raised in the late 1960s with a "do what you want" philosophy, in a "if it feels good, do it" era.
The good intention was soul liberation (in reaction to soul-stupifying restrictions of the past); but to me the message ended up sounding like "It doesn't matter what you do."

I was struck one day when my religious-studies prof casually said something about "trying to be good." That was not a phrase I'd ever heard. When I checked with my parents, they agreed that making an effort to be good had not been part of their thinking. (One was just naturally good, or not; trying didn't come into it.)

The good thing about having been raised outside any religion was that I never suffered abuse from it. I know people who wince at some of Augustine's ideas, for instance, because they'd been piled on them like bricks.
But to me, many of his ideas were correctives.
Original sin, for instance, offered me psychological insight that balanced the importance of the individual ("you're created in the image of God...") with an awareness of human limitation ("...but you're not God"). I found this encouraging: "Look, it's a given that you are going to fuck up. Don't let it stop you."
But I know many people who'd heard it from childhood as "You are bad."

III. The Fierce Champions

These ideas aren't just expressed through theology, of course.
Augustine's intensity reminds me of Charlotte Bronte, who also insists, through her plain, poor, and powerless character Jane Eyre, that the individual matters.
Reading both Augustine and Bronte, I feel their concentrated personalities so strongly, it's like they're present in the room. They burn off the page, right through the centuries.

Jane Eyre fiercely defends her honor and her right to self-determination. She expresses herself in religious terms, but one senses it's because they serve her, not because they've been beaten into her. She derives dignity and strength from them, not humiliation. She's unimportant in social terms--a governess, as Bronte knew from experience, was like a table scrap off the table of privilege--but she matters to God, and hence to herself.

[Art Sparker recently created a nice portrait of Bronte.]

IV. The Symphony of Science

I take similar encouragement--and humility of scale--from science, and scientists like the ones in the video below, who say:
"I'm just a speck ...there are billions and billions of specks." "The cosmos is also within us; we're made of stardust." "That makes me want to grab people on the street and say, 'Have you heard this?!'" "But you've gotta stop and think about it."
And here they are--my sister sent this to me--auto-tuned! "We Are All Connected"

More videos from the Symphony of Science, "a musical project headed by John Boswell designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form."
* "The obscure consolation of original sin" is a phrase from John Updike's essay "On Not Being a Dove," in his collection Self-Consciousness.


ArtSparker said...

I have also been thinking about Jane Eyre and wanting to reread it.

momo said...

Happy Epiphany! In Spain, the three kings would be bringing us presents today.

Margaret said...

The video is wonderfully mind blowing. Personally, I find it more comforting to think I don't matter than to think I do. Well, perhaps not more comforting, but at least more liberating, as you said.

The Crow said...

Synchronicity strikes again! Received an email today about the newest vid from Symphony of Science - too cool.


Jennifer said...

Oh, Symphony of Science! I have been literally singing snippets from that video and some others for a month or so now. I find them amazingly uplifting and...I don't know, I guess consoling. At that level, "mattering" and "not mattering" seem to mean the same thing, I think. We are all totally meaningless in the vast scheme of things, tiny specks, and that makes us all equally and infinitely precious as well, because we're the only tiny specks we've got...

Fresca said...

SPARKER: I've read Jane Eyre several times since I was ten years old, but it was only this past year that I read it slowly, every word, looking beyond and behind the plot, and really felt I met the freakish genius of the author herself. I thought it was as much about the struggles of being a writer/artist as anything.

MOMO: I want a present! Or, better, a cake. They sell 3-kings cakes (looks like a sweet bread) at the Mexican bakery around the corner--one year I'm going to buy one.

MARGARET: Paradoxically, I too find it liberating--and even comforting, yes-- not to matter.
I think Jen's later comment puts this well:
in the scale of infinity (whether one calls that divinity or the universe), we both matter and don't matter at all.
I'd say we matter most when we are our most authentic selves--it's a self-determination thing.

CROW & JEN: The wonderful Symphony of Science must be making the rounds.
Aren't they great?!
Ive long liked Feynman, and he's my favorite, here, with his palpable glee at physics:
"It's really really there... but you've got to think about it to get the pleasure.'
This could be the motto of my life.

momo said...

In Spain the 3 kings cake is called roscón, and is a ring/wreath of sweet dough, sliced in half and filled with whipped cream.

Jane Eyre was one of the first literary characters I consciously identified with as a 10 year old loner. Not the marrying Rochester part,but wanting the resolve and strength of character.

I do love that autotune-the-universe clip. It only really works for this one for me, though.

Fresca said...

MOMO: Yes, that's what these cakes look like too, minus the whipped cream. I guess you could add that yourself. Next year?

Ten must be the perfect age to meet Jane Eyre. Remember when she's little (is she ten, even?) and stands up to that horrid Mr. Brocklehurst in her aunt's parlor? What a clear-eyed human being, living in such an impoverished human landscape...

I haven't actually watched the other SofS videos--a little auto-tune goes a long way.