If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy? Marilynne Robinson
It’s summer and I’m sitting on a flat white beach on the northern Oregon coast. We (Amy, her brother and sister-in-law and all our various children) are celebrating my in-laws wedding anniversary. The weekend – and 50 years of fidelity to vows – are a gift to us all. Amy is building a sandcastle with Robby who is 7 years old and he does everything with great intensity, all his considerable focus bent on the task at hand. And for this moment he is simply an extraordinarily beautiful boy, all long lanky energy, sun-bleached hair and knobby-knees, his body still fluid and careless. He is unworried and unhurried and he yells, “Daddy, come look at the castle.”
So I go to look, thankfully putting down Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, no light beach reading to be sure, but an assignment for my last class at Fuller Seminary. Freud is a hard, jarring read. In his analysis, we are instinctively driven to maximize pleasure in the face of the inexorable lessening of pleasure’s possibility. Fate (the blind and meaningless passage of time) simply deals this harsh hand to us all, and our efforts to avoid suffering are futile. Worse than futile, the insatiable drive to avoid suffering reflects a defect in human maturity, an infantile clinging to a projection (God, goodness eternal) for which we hope most – that justice will be known, forgiveness too, and every tear will be wiped away. Instead, Freud gives us a cold world, devoid of hope or awe, except awe at the roiling, unknown forces that drive us all and of which we are at best only vaguely aware. His vision is bracing, at best.
At the same time, I am also reading Wind, Sand and Stars, a compilation of essays by Antoine De Saint-Expurey, a french pilot who lived and wrote in the early 20th century and is perhaps best known for The Little Prince. Reading him provides a glimmer of light to Freud’s dark shadow. Here Saint-Expurey writes of a coal miner, trapped underground when a mine collapses:
Inside the narrow skull of the miner, pinned beneath the fallen timber, there lives a world. Parents, friends, a home, the hot soup of evening, songs sung on feast days, loving kindness and anger, perhaps even a social consciousness and a great universal love, inhabit that skull. By what are we to measure the value of man? Man’s gestures are an eternal spring. Though we die for it, we shall bring up that miner from his shaft. Solitary he may be; universal he surely is.
More poetic than polemical, Saint-Expurey suggests, intuits really, that human beings are more than a bag of chemicals fortuitously arranged for consciousness, that there is more to a person than instinctive desires rummaging around in the mud and muck with other beasts.
Ernest Becker, in Denial of Death, articulates this tension between Freud and Saint-Expurey, between a thoroughly reductionist view of humanity (we are only desires in a material shell) and a more exalted vision (“our gestures are an eternal spring”), quite simply: we are “gods” who are acutely aware of our non-god status. We sense the eternal, of ourselves and our lives, while rooted in the ever decaying materiality of the visible. We call this existential angst or, more accurately, terror and we hear the tension everywhere. Here Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:
For the time being, the world remains its own drawing; we walk a tightrope above an abyss, and the grace of the walk does not deny the artificiality of the wire. I know now that there is no straight line that you can draw around a life to take its shape away; there are only marks, made underhand, that you erase and adjust and erase again, over and over, until the black dog barks and the afternoon is over, and you close your pad and call it life.
Perhaps. Perhaps we can’t “re-draw” the reality of our finitude with the limited vision available to us, no matter how brilliant or beautiful. But we do hear a different promise in the biblical narrative: God reaches down into primordial goop and breaths into matter, filling it with life, giving it some spark of the divine glory so that humans are a little lower than angels, a little higher than beasts. On this reading, each particular life is a beautiful (and at times horrible) drama, full of significance and meaning, in and through which something of the eternal is taking shape. We certainly live and love and hope as if this were true. We dig the miner from the debris; we watch our child on the beach; we experience a sometimes aching sense – in joy and passion, grief and lament, in sacrifice given for a greater good or for others – that there is more to our days than each day’s tasks, that our life is more than a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
But we cannot ignore Freud. Robby will leave the beach. He and his brother will fight. Amy or I will manage the chaos. I’ll do something boneheaded or even hurtful, requiring forgiveness and a slow reconciliation that all families require at times. Freud’s analysis is timeless because it articulates, clearly and without blinking, the trial of being human and the trials humans bring upon themselves and one another. We are all, always, driven by reasons of which we know only part. We know the stories we tell ourselves and they are gilded and soft, full of easy self-justification. Perhaps this, more than anything else, is Freud’s wisdom for those of us raised in waters of perpetual and easy affirmation. “We are beggars all; this is true,” Luther is reported to have said on his deathbed. He and Freud agree on this at least.
Your life and mine are but a breath, this too is true, but we also believe and act as if they are, in some sense, a sacred breath. So thought the Psalmist – Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be – and so, sometimes, do we.