The Return of the Spirit
The Return of the Spirit
COPYRIGHT © 2020 by Will Groenewegen
All rights reserved.
Printed by Asquith Press, Toronto
This’s and that’s
fragment the mind
We’re caught in this Way
for the Name
to the very last day.
In the face of the uncertain, who among us has the will? Who dares question the assumptions we make about life, and how to best live it? How many of us set sail from safe lands of custom and forge ahead into the unknown?
Out of its depths, the unfamiliar washes at the shores of our beliefs, its mystery felt with each approaching wave. If we venture in, where will it take us, other than away from what we have come to know? But what is the alternative? With how much resolve can we believe our convictions without first putting them aside and testing uncharted water?
We’ve all examined the explanations and stories of our mothers and fathers with a skeptical eye, haven’t we? Surely we’ve at least considered speeding from their truths and gods on that untamed wind, with all its vigour and courage.
But it is a fierce force, of course, the wind that drives our desire to understand - the ‘why’ that leaves our certainties ungrounded, whipping them about in the air. It plays havoc with the things we think we know. It topples our structures and discards our so-called truths. Long before we disappear into its horizon, it tears at the core of our beliefs, ripping their fabric. Our tattered ships force a decision: rebuild or retreat.
Neighbours and friends call from the departed shore, their voices still recognizable across the water: ‘You’ll go insane in the shadows of those giant waves! Look at the state of your sails! Can you not be satisfied with the water you already know? How can it not suffice? Come back to safety!’
But the boat-folk are resolute: ‘How safe is this safety when it rests on such unthoughtful and stormy ground? Are we really to find our solace there?’ Too many do, and go back to familiar life, their sails (as of yet) too thin for the wind of ‘why’, their ships no match for its force. They about-face and hastily throw their ropes upon the docks and tie them securely there, returning to their ways.
Despite this lack of muster, there remains a part unsatisfied, buried but not forgotten, ignored but not unfelt, that continues its quest in dark corners of the mind. Locked away and far from free it’s haunted by doubts, troubled by questions, and burdened by ‘why.’
And meanwhile, the brave sail off, out of sight, riding the chaos and order of the winds, eager to explore the uncertain, the unconscious, and the unknown, their faces leaning into its spray. ‘Damned fools,’ say the people of the land. Their jealousy covered by righteousness and judgment, they mutter with wild egos, ‘the gods will be angry.’
And yet there is always hope, even for the land-walkers, for in between the shadows of their unimaginative beings the children stare with longing at the departing adventurers on the sea, for they too are obsessed with ‘why,’ and have not yet learned to fear and detest it. They look with confusion and pity at the olden people that tower above them, and vow to never become one; to never be jaded by age or ill-conceived custom, and to one day themselves sail into matters unknown.
According to the books, there was a time before the one we live in now, an age before science and the empirical mind. In that place, they say, much of human experience was animated by myth and ritual. Life was given motion by metaphor, it wasn’t simply understood formally and rationally. It knew that some aspects of the Way could not be accurately talked about. Two worlds, physical anddivine, made up the lens and fueled the movements of the people, and for this, the minds of the people allowed for the idea of an unexplainable unknown. For them, truth was revealed through stories, not laboratories, purpose revealed through action, not fact.
That way of understanding life is all but gone here in our secular scientific modern world, at least on the surface; the mythological view has been replaced by a newer one, grounded on matter and fact, not morals and meaning. In many respects this newer Way does indeed offer clarity, and we are grateful for it. Without doubt, the method is a supreme one, and one we should never let go.
But in the shadows of our categories and classifications, this new material worldview has stunted our sense of what life means, and we struggle to find purpose. We laugh at people who believe in gods, though ours have just changed form. We think of myth as stories for infants, and forget that our reality is still informed by interpretation, by ancient meaning-making apparatus that whisper to us from the deepest parts of our beings.
Granted, for most of what we think about and experience, reason and science are our go-to systems of interpretation, and for good reason: they hold great insight, and improve our lives profoundly. But are there not matters of interest and necessity that lie beyond reason’s grasp? Are we not more than a rationalist’s account of existence?
For insights into the idea of ‘the eternal,’ the material worldview comes up short. When confronting our mortality, or thinking about ‘how to act in the world,’ it doesn’t have much to say. By and large, this worldview sees the human as a being influenced solely by deterministic forces, and in doing so it can’t help but leave us feeling helpless and alienated, like we have no will of our own, no act that offers us catharsis.
The mythological worldview, on the other hand, affords the space to consider and embody those parts of human experience and understanding, a space outside the realm of language, financial markets, and even rational comprehension. It makes use of other powerful tools, like ritual, symbols and ceremony, using them to penetrate the depths of human experience and understanding in ways the material worldview alone cannot.
In this place, nature is animated and mysterious. In this place, metaphysical ideas, paradoxical problems, and unconscious elements of our beings are not stifled, repressed, or shunned as irrational and infantile. In fact they are revered, for they hold clues to the transcendent potential of our lives. The truth, meaning and reality of such a situation is poorly accounted for in the scientific material worldview - when pressed, it is forced to admit that it can’t go it alone.
That ancient lens, rusting away within us, is needed again, not to replace our current rational one, but to join it. So far, some argue, we have lived in only one or the other of these two Ways of being. And admittedly, we were once superstitious to a fault, but now we’re empirical to a dangerous degree. These two pillars of understanding and experience, mistakenly pitted against each other for the last hundreds of years, have left our equilibrium off, and our potential unmet. But as the great pendulum of human history swings between them, now we know, for we have been to both.
It has, to us, become apparent, that ‘truth,’ ‘reality,’ and where we make meaning come from both sources, equally vital. We understand truth not just as physical matter, but also as moral spirit. We understand that reality comes to us from physical andmetaphysical realms, from consciousness and unconsciousness, from fact and action, from thought and experience. The best path forward makes use of both modes of seeing and both Ways of being.
John Returns to the Sea
All the signs pointed in the same direction. All the voices spoke in harmony. The timing was perfect. It was destined to be.
Or at least, this was a reading of the situation. It was an interpretation of the events. Could it be he was meant to do it? Was he intended to arrive? He came here at the last minute and on a whim, as if it wasn’t his decision at all, as if other and greater forces had it planned from the start. Or at least, this was how one could see it, this is how it might seem to be.
Having been here last year, John Ryder already knew about the little stone house sitting on the warm coast of the Pacific. It was the kind of place he had always favoured: out of the way and out of doors, with sand instead of pavement and fishing boats instead of cars. He thought about it constantly throughout the previous year – about taking time off the daily grind to write and surf in the waves of the early morning sea. Thinking about it helped get him through irritating commutes in the exhaust-thickened streets where he was from. It brought relief at the grocery store, waiting with the other annoyed and unhappy looking people buying processed products under the buzzing of fluorescent lights. ‘Why don’t we at least speak to each other in these god-forsaken line-ups?,’ John would ask himself as they all shuffled quietly to the front of the queue. But he was one of them too, standing there, silently staring at other people’s purchases.
In those moments, John could sometimes make himself remember - he’d close his eyes and see the house, resting slightly crooked next to the moving sea beside the quiet village. It was a coping strategy, undoubtedly, and it helped; his breathing slowed and his jaw would unclench. He conjured up the image whenever he got caught in wind tunnels downtown, making a kite out of his clothes, the angry sour polluting air pushing him back to work. Or when he missed the bus, or when he locked himself out of his truck, or when he dropped his phone and cracked the screen into a thousand pieces on the sidewalk; there it would be, easily accessible in that file in his mind, under ‘how life makes more sense.’
The place can’t be found online. There isn’t even a phone number to call. All you can do is get on a plane, get yourself to the village, and hope to find the old lady who owns it (Sophia is her name). For this fact alone John kept his hopes down, but he crossed his fingers and made his way there anyway. And, as luck or fate or meaningless randomness would have it, an Australian surfer just so happened to be reluctantly packing up after a six-month stay. John quickly found Sophia, and paid her on the spot. It was a very good beginning indeed.
His new home stands alone, anywhere from three to ten metres back from the ocean (depending on the tide), resting about half way between the small village and a massive cliff made of sun-bleached rock. Next to it the little house is tiny and easy to miss. In fact, if you were to walk by it there’s a good chance you wouldn’t see it at all; sun-drenched into its surroundings, the hideaway somehow disappears into the rock and sand that cover the coastline.
Inside is all that is needed for a good writing stint: a bed, a shelf, a plug, a chair, and a desk under a little open-air window that looks out to the water. Beside is a half-outdoor kitchen with a warm sand-packed floor. Next to that a simple shower-room with the sky for a roof and a hole in the wall, so you can see the sea when you’re getting clean.
And what a sea! Warm and endless, rising and falling, coming and going, day after day. For all its motion, it pencils in a horizon so straight, like an iron bar - so wide, you can see the sun rise out of it and drop back into it later in the day - so vast, it can't be fully absorbed with an unmoving eye. The majesty of the nature, the power of the ocean, it made John’s body feelincredible, somehow. And his mind too, in awe at the general wonders of life.
‘It’s so diverse in all of its manifestations, but it’s so whole and united in how it all acts together - like it has a mind of its own...’ It blew John’s mind, to consider this force of life, to consider that great Will that wills its parts into action, that unfragmented sum that transcends its parts, that condition for the possibility of life to occur.
As delightful and annoying as this way of considering was, the ocean was always like this for John - it compelled him to think and experience his life in this way. It connected him to something greater than just himself. It made him feel as if he was a part of something bigger than his subjectivity allowed for on its own. In doing so, it made him feel less alone.
And yet, ironically, and at the same time, the vastness of the sea reminded him of his limitations and finitude, of his little place in the great expanding universe, and how alone he really was. It was quite the catch-22.
On the night in question he sat in the shallows of the surf, appreciating that the ocean and the air were the same warm inviting temperature. There was no one else around, just he, the breeze, the water, and the stars. ‘It’s amazing that self-consciousness has somehow emerged from the darkness of the universe and the force of the sea,’ he said out loud to the water. 'Even just to consider it; it's such a remarkable activity, thinking is… it’s astounding that we can do it at all!’
How unlikely the odds, we think; chances so infinitesimally small - it could not have been by chance at all: there of course must be a creator and a plan. Or at least, this is how it could be perceived; indeed, this is what many choose to believe.
John grew up in a northern land. He’s tall, in his late thirties, with a thin strong build. He wears light-brown hair, a relatively unkempt beard, and a simple and classic choice of cloth - usually without any visible brands. He’s one of these people who is occupied with the human condition, drawn to the philosophical – and in this age of existential crisis, there was a lot to consider.
Compared to his urban steel home where the sun struggles to shine its light through the tightly planted skyscrapers, the pace and style of life here at the stone house runs on a different sort of clock: it’s slower, and rises and falls with the sun and the tide. Since it's a tiny village, everyone knows each other. John was happy to be a part of it, but it also saddened him. This way of life was too unfamiliar, and he hated that it was. But at the very same time, he somehow felt more at home in this place, as if the trials and tribulations of a life made a little more sense. Romanticizing aside, the whole experience just felt more ‘right.’
Here, miles from the maddening crowds, time passes largely hidden from the world, and days go by with a natural consistency: in the early hours, the sun quietly pulls itself out of the ocean, the surfers and pelicans wake up and share morning waves as they sport and hunt in the early light. Locals perform the outdoor duties that only the morning sun will allow. As the day progresses they take to the shade and trade the stories and strategies of the day while the surfers and pelicans nap in their nests.
Usually some other small event happens too, like a passing vegetable truck getting stuck in the sand on its way through town. Towns-folk rush to aid the truck driver and soon the vegetables are off to the next village. Then low tide comes around, and the local boys perform their chores as they (usually very successfully) hunt crabs and clams in the now-exposed sun-drying rock. They give their findings to their mothers to cook up for dinner. Soon after all this, the sea begins to rise and the sun begins to set, the sky erupts in colour once again, and the surfers and pelicans return to the water. And just as the sun and its light slide up the trunks of the palms and the sides of the stone houses dotted along the beach, the smell of seafood cooking on the fire takes over and satiates the sandy streets, still warm from the day's rays.
John came to learn that such a style and story of life, necessarily set by the sun and the water, renders “what time is it?” a completely different sort of question. Back at home in the city, if you were to ask someone what time it was, often they’ll tell you down to the minute. ‘It’s 9:27.’ The urban experience demands it: if you miss the bus to work too many times you’ll lose your job. In a place like this, if you were to ask someone 'what time is it?' the answer would often not involve numbers at all. Instead, a reply that has something to do with the state of affairs in nature, or a derivative thereof: ‘It’s high tide’ or ‘it’s time to catch tuna.’
‘How nice it would be,’ thought John, ‘if in my life, meaning and value were overtly made in this nature-based way. If the position of the sun and the sea mattered amidst the towers and high-rises in that manufactured forest I call home. It’s hard to conceive in the shadows of the towering bank-castles of our current corporatocracy, yet so obvious its crucial nature in this place. Here, it’s far more often far more important to know where the tide is then where the time is. '9:27' is just not as meaningful and pertinent to daily life as is a shifting sea or a current of tuna.’
Case in point: it is only when the tide is low that John can walk east on the beach and access a set of rock stairs cut into the side of the cliff (there is another way there but it takes forever). You climb up about a hundred steps that are carved into the stone, and at the top lives a man named Gara.
Gara waters his Garden
Gara was born in the country but raised in France. He’s an old, very tall (if not a little stooped), mustached man who returned to his homeland about ten years prior, to retire, and enjoy the rest of his days at the edge of his cliff. His mother was from the village below; his father was a Frenchman.
Gara's accent is thick like the air where he lives, his English is superb, his mind sharp. His half-foreign genes make him stand out in a local crowd, skin more olive than brown, his height and large nose arousing suspicion from the locals as to the origins and trust-worthiness of this potential outsider.
John had met him when he was out exploring one day the year before, and took such a strong liking to him that he visited almost every day thereafter. Over their morning coffees and stiff afternoon coconut vodkas, the two men quickly developed a relationship ‘existencial’ in nature, as Gara would say.
This day was like all the others: after the hugs and handshakes subsided, they found themselves deep in their familiar banter. John told Gara that he had returned to write a book.
Gara was preparing to water his garden, something he did every morning when the sun was at this angle. ‘What’s the book about, my friend?’ he asked.
‘What's it about?’, considered John. Surprisingly, it kind of took him off guard. It was an obvious question, but one, he realized, that wasn’t easy to answer. He thought about it for a second: humans, as he understood it, are meaning-making machines. Sure, objectively speaking, perhaps there’s no meaning to life – that is, the universe might not care one way or another - but subjectively, we can’t help but do it, make it, see value - even if it’s declaring that there isn’t any: the irony of nihilism is that proclaiming that there’s no meaning is a profoundly meaningful thing to do.
It was thus not so much if, but howwe make meaning that was most interesting to John. For him, the current secular story and guide on how to live isn’t great at helping us find and make sense of meaning. He was convinced that it was too materialistic, rational, and economic to offer a sound road map of the hero’s journey. Our traditional spaces, our religious places, that we have always used to develop and experience this epic - are disintegrating, and hard to find. And so the practice of reflecting on the metaphysical, of thinking about our place in the world, and of acting it out through ritual, well, it has all but disappeared. It was no wonder to him that we have found ourselves in such a deep existential crisis. When it comes to understanding meaning, when it comes to experiencing life for ourselves and with each other, we’re rusty, without mentorship, and charged to figure it out on our own.
John felt confident enough to start, although he spoke slowly at first: ‘Well, essentially, it’s about how the ideas we have, and the behaviours we act out, shape our reality… so we should be thoughtful about them.’
Gara nodded and looked over. ‘Good, yes; we can’t just go around believing what we’re told to believe, that’s dangerous. Dangerous indeed. One needs to be an active agent, yes? in the stories they take to be true.’
He pulled his garden hose out from the side of his house, started unraveling it, and pointed it towards John. ‘After all, the way that governments, priests, and capitalists tell us to live our lives is loco.’
John agreed. ‘Yah you’re right, like: ‘it’s okay to treat our planet like garbage.’
Gara shook his head and muttered ‘out of sight, out of mind’. John let out a short sad sigh and added, ‘or how capitalist society rewards us for taking advantage of others, reinforcing the idea that we should only be concerned with ourselves.’
John looked around while he spoke, reacquainting himself with Gara’s outdoor space, noticing the small changes in the set-up since his visit the year before – a new painting on the outside wall over there, a new television by Gara’s little pool on the cliff. In that moment, even while considering the dismal subject matter they were unfolding, he found himself content, mesmerized by the beauty, and the weather, and the words of an interesting friend.
Gara had much to say on the subject at hand. He closed his eyes and focused on giving John book-worthy words: ‘we’re lonely, purpose is hard to find, yet we’re told this modern way of living is better, and more advanced, than all the others. We think that our scientific mind is the only correct way to understand life. That it’s the evolved and civilized way, not like the ‘primitive’ (Gara air quoting) that existed before…’ Gara shook his head, ‘how righteous! How stupid! How short-sighted!’ Gara opened his eyes and looked at his friend expectantly. John smiled and nodded approvingly, enjoying the rant and agreeing with the sentiment.
Gara breathed a few long breaths of warm tropical air, filtered by miles of ocean. Then he dragged the garden hose over to his aloe vera plants and mango trees. He looked over at John: ‘Social norms are sneaky like that, wouldn’t you say?’
John nodded, ‘That’s exactly it, they’re insidious. That’s why we must approach with skepticism and think carefully about what we believe, or unhelpful ideas will take root...’ He looked at Gara watering his herb garden ‘…then they become automatic, right? Our brains wire to believe them, and the crazy becomes the normal. Before you know it, we’re brainwashed, controlled, repressed, mentally beaten down, emotionally fraught.’
It seemed too dangerous to John, the consequences too great. Especially since our current narrative strips the mythological view away, and in doing so does away with our rituals, deadens our spirits, and leaves us with anxious psychologies. But before he worried himself more about it, he glanced towards the gardening Gara, and smiled as the mist from his hose caught a rainbow in the sun. He really appreciated friends like this, that don’t simply believe the way their parents, priests and presidents tell them to. He wanted to meet as many of these kinds of people as he possibly could.
Why didn’t they stress it when we were young? Why weren’t we told when we were kids? Why weren’t they shouting it to us from the rooftops, urging us to step back and question our ideas? Why didn’t they say: ‘don’t just listen to us – think for yourself!’
Far too often it’s the opposite that happens: we’re shunned for being rebels, punished for questioning authority, banned for pointing out the mythological nature of our belief systems, coerced into taking on the script of our time. The slyness of these cultural norms brings with it real challenges: for even if we do resist, it can be a full-time job just to be sure we don’t get duped again.
What didn’t sit well with John was how many people seem to prefer it in that unthoughtful land of mindless living, unwilling to risk the uncertainty and upheaval that dismantling their belief system would surely bring. It is better, they convince themselves, to do as you’re told. It’s safer, they argue, to believe in stories that attempt to resolve the anxieties of life, that promise us certainty, and even ‘everlasting happiness’. But these are just avoidant strategies that keep us from being fully human, are they not? John thought so: ‘Weshouldbe rebels. We shouldthink twice about following the herd, as lonely as it might be on the path.’
At this point in the gardening Gara spoke up, with more ideas for the book: ‘How about this,’ he said and paused for a moment before: ‘…the powers that be can tryto put their spells on us, but in the end, they can’t force us to believe’, you know? We the people have the final say!’ Gara looked inspired by his own words.
John responded, ‘it’s true. But it’s up to us to use our power…’ John trailed off and gazed across the water. Gara was moving the hose over to the vegetable section of his garden. John turned and watched him for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flock of pelicans flying across the waves in the distance, looking for unsuspecting fish surfing in the crest. ‘…let’s say a bird craps on your head,’ he began.
‘I’d prefer for that not to happen,’ Gara said.
‘And yet for some it’s considered good luck,’ said John. ‘So they wouldn’t be upset about it. Others, say, a super religious person, might get the post-head-crap idea that their God is punishing them for some transgression or another, and the bird-crap event could lead them to terrible thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame. So in the end, it’s not necessarily a negative orpositive experience; it could be interpreted as a sign of good things to come, the harsh judgment brought down by an omnipotent presence, it could mean countless other things, or maybe not much at all. How we think about it, how we perceive it, will determine how we feel about it, and how we act on it.’
Gara was examining the leaves of his avocado trees. ‘Ideas become the pathways in our brains, and the chemistry in our bodies.’ John agreed: it’s not so much that external reality itselfholds power, giving us value and meaning and emotion, but instead the way we interpret it. Deep in our neural pathways, ideas hard wire themselves into existence. It was somehow both a ridiculously obvious and wonderfully profound idea. They glanced at each other for a moment, happy to be in each other’s company again.
Gara had turned off the hose. He was sitting down across from John, rolling a cigarette with some tobacco he had gotten from the market in town. John watched and said: ‘the counter-argument, of course, is a deterministic one: reality is not so much based on our ideas, but instead by our genes. It’s nature, not nurture. That we are essentially material beings, driven by a genetic code, not by unknown creative forces, not by free-will.’ Gara nodded and John continued. ‘In that kind of genetic-based deterministic view, something like ‘violence’ is explained through biology: since we’re programmed, there’s nothing we can do about it; we’re predisposed. And if that’s the case, it’s not really up to us, and with that idea, the urgency to consider our values wanes.’
Gara took a long drag of his smoke and looked at John. ‘Right, right,’ he said, exhaling. ‘And there’s probably some truth to it. But if you ask the experts, they say that’s not the way genes work, or at least it’s not that black and white.’ He raised his index finger and closed his eyes for effect: ‘having a genetic predisposition doesn’t an alcoholic make… it’s the environment, it’s experience, it’s behaviour, it’s self-determination - those are, at least in part, the deciding factors for how and why we do the things we do.’
Today, the task of reviewing our beliefs is as paramount as ever. We’re encouraged to obsess over certainty, and to detest anything that can’t be known for sure. As a consequence, existential concerns are hard to fit into the story of our lives. We’re persuaded to search for someone, or some group, to think on our behalf, and give us the assurances we have learned to crave. We gladly pay for it, we even pray for it. We’re (at the least implicitly) told to repress sadness and pathologize stress, even though they’re natural experiences we are sure to face. Our current script has us running towards antidotes and distractions, and we’re offered little guidance when life inevitably gives us uncertainty and despair.
Before we know it, we find ourselves on the bandwagon of belief. ‘How did we get here?’ one might ask the others, as they bounce along the road of life. ‘Well, what else are we to do?’ the others respond, and suspiciously label the questioner an undesirable.
Upon even a cursory reflection, our current Way of living does not show itself to be as developed and advanced as we may have first thought. Whereas we once saw the physical world and the divine or mythological world as cohabitating, we have at present been reduced to beings that are understood primarily in terms of the material and the economy. Now we look around, more and more in danger of forgetting what it is to be fully alive, and think, ‘what the hell is the point of it all?’
Ours has become an oversimplified and unsustainable story, and one need not look far to see it: we prioritize making weapons over feeding the hungry, we don’t share power with those in need, we’d often rather kill someone for their idea of God then question our own. We murder each other over differing ideas, over profits, over greed. We drive species to extinction, we clear cut forests, we pollute land, water and air to disgusting excess. We focus on what we can know and control in the external environment, and dismiss all that we can’t as less important, even irrelevant. We have all kinds of knowledge, sure, but is this what we’re supposed to do with it? The current narrative doesn’t ask the question, in fact it actively kicks the can down the road, leaving the mess for the next fiscal quarter.
What infuriated John the most is that this state of affairs, based simply on bad ideas, doesn