Distance does not make you falter,
now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone. — from Goethe, The Holy Longing
On the evenings I step back inside my home from my local coffee-house, I often pause by a bookcase just inside the door. I pick a book at random, usually one I’ve not read for awhile or even never read—having bought books over the years that I grow into eventually—and opening it anywhere, taking in the tone and cadence, the rhythm of the sentences, the delight of walking in on a conversation in full swing. Reading out of context breaks the mind out of dull expectation; it throws one almost violently into a world emerging into light, a creative disjunction, an optical bending of shapes into images. All that, and it’s fun, too.
I picked up Michael Meade’s Men and the Water of Life, an initiation into myth and storytelling, and found a poem by Goethe I’d not read before called “The Holy Longing,” which concludes with this:
And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
Then I pulled down Colin Wilson’s brilliant work, The Outsider, written when he was only 24, in 1956. The Outsider traces the literary development of the alienated ones, the people just beyond the thinnest edge of the crowd, the ones who by their very nature do not fit nor conform to polite society. They cherish their aloneness, yet they need others to truly be themselves. And the first page I opened it to . . . contained the stanza above from Goethe’s poem.
These moments of serendipity are mysterious and welcome. For me, they happen often enough that I am not surprised, though I’m always grateful. They are one of the small wonders of the universe. It’s like coming upon a bonsai garden, the tiny, perfectly-formed trees. sometimes hundreds of years old, that stand majestically in their created environments.
On my way up the hill to home, with the sound of endless traffic behind me and a moonless sky above, I was thinking of “home.” Not the domicile (from Latin, domus) where, as the thesaurus puts it, “whenever you are absent, you intend to return,” but this Earth, this world. Perhaps not just this third rock from the Sun, but more the world we both create and observe, the imaginative world within which we live and move and study ourselves.
My students and I had been talking in philosophy class about freedom, freewill and determinism, the questions that ask whether we choose our actions, whether we are destined or fated, or if we are simply flung upon this earth. The question I had put to them reflected our readings and our discussion:
The determinist says: Every event has its explanatory cause.
Some people say: Everything happens for a reason.
Is there a difference between these two positions?
The answers were thoughtful, wry, insightful, even humorous. One group stepped up vigorously and denied any differences. Cause and reason, they said, are different words for the same thing. We see an event: we trace it back to a cause. If everything happens for a reason then there must be a cause, since reason implies purpose, and purposes don’t come out of nowhere.
Another group advanced more cautiously, working the knife in between the stones in the wall and in finding the differences. For them, ‘cause’ implied a point of origin, the initial shove that set something in motion. ‘Everything happens for a reason’ is the phrase that people use in the aftermath of an event when they’re trying to make sense of something. They say it over the shoulder as they doggedly trudge forward.
A smaller group saw it as the bridge between science and religion, since science seeks knowledge of events and religion looks to faith to interpret what cannot be solely based on facts.
And all week I had been, in spare moments, reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs, both rich in detail and broad in its scope. It’s a fascinating work, not only because Jobs is a fascinating subject, but because Isaacson sees the relentless purity at the center of the man’s soul. Jobs was a man whose dark side got up every morning and went to work with a knife between his teeth. His light side appeared occasionally, smiling and charming, with the knife held loosely behind his back. He was the dazzling embodiment of Kierkegaard’s maxim, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” And for him the one thing was found at the intersection of Art and Technology where extraordinary engineering met exquisite design. He could not bear any deviance from the path of simplicity that led to perfection. How deep were his flaws and how high his aspirations!
Such purity of heart is dangerous, a flame that consumes all and finally itself. Is this what it takes to make a dent in the universe?
Tell a wise person, or else keep silent.
Because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.
Every event has a cause, but not all events are visible. Everything happens for a reason, but reason cannot always see it. Looking back, we connect the dots.