These Fragile Things

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Sometimes it feels like time has run out anywhere other than via Facebook graphics for public discussions about the importance of nurturing things that are fragile, like beauty and hope and imagination and meaning-making.

These fragile things, they are things that scarily feel culturally strange and pointless. They are for hippies, scientific illiterates.  We are ambivalent - we crave those fragile things while at the same time they can make us feel a little ill, somehow, in some indefinable dark way that we don't even begin to understand.  They can make us feel prickled in our sides, pushed in our buttons.  They are things that do not feel allowable in this time. Look at how scarce money is, we say. It doesn’t stretch to encompass frivolity. Those things are frivolous fancy, we are busy and frazzled, and there is not enough money to go around for them, we say, through gurgling stomachs.

But beauty and imagination and hope and creativity are the other side of the bigger picture. We know this, when we’re not stressed and distracted off our dials. We go on holiday for these things. They are what makes life meaningful. They cannot easily be commodified, broken down into a spreadsheet, extrapolated out into data analysis. And, as truly important as left-brain analysis is, it is only one side of the story.

The bigger picture reminds us that money is a construct that we invented, as a means of energy exchange, as an easier alternative to bartering, but fast forward hundreds of years and it has been flat-packed down into a ridiculously complicated means of restriction, of gain at others' expense. On this other side of the picture, we can change how we “do” money so that it is retrieved from greed, fear and competition and restored once again to its rightful position. As will we be. And from there, beauty, imagination and hope aren’t optional extras for a people who are more than consumers, but are the beginning of something new.

These ideas seem pie in the sky, do they not?  Hopelessly naive. It’s easy to fall into black despair that maybe we are a species watching ourselves see ourselves out. But maybe the biggest part of the problem is not that it’s not possible to change, but that we think it’s not. And maybe another part of the problem is that we're trying to use the wrong kind of thinking to get there – supposing that we can estimate change, predict our future only by how economically viable it is, while considerations of how we wish to live and how that could be meaninful remain on the sidelines, slightly embarrassing and irrational. How different really are we from ages past that relied on scriptures to guide their living?  We like to rely on externals as well, like economic forecasts, missing entirely the fact that these are all just a different type of prognostication, and one that keeps us as small and sidelined as the Old Testament texts that painted God as a ravaging, nasty monster, coldly inconsiderate of the shape and size and weft of those who he'd formed.

Too much left-hemisphere thinking (unlike too much left wing politics) seems to make us smaller, less humane, and I don’t like it – not just simply because I float in dreamland and have crappy time-management skills, but because it will be to our literal destruction if we can’t rebalance.

But also because it makes us miserable.

Note I didn't say no left-hemisphere thinking but too much.  Imbalance can create havoc and I do believe that we can see the evidence of that in the destruction of the world around us.

“The [brain's] left hemisphere tells us that the quest for meaning is meaningless, because it is not equipped to deal in meaning or understanding, but manipulating and processing,” says Ian McGilchrist. Meaning, he says, “emerges from engagement with the world, not from abstract contemplation of it.” The left hemisphere of our brains is biased towards seeing the parts; the right towards seeing the whole picture. It is that greater expansion of the view which we need more than anything right now.

A drawing better illustrates this example.  A person who has suffered a right-hemisphere stroke and who therefore is more dependent upon the left hemisphere of the brain sees and draws only the right-hand side of things – half a cat, half a house, half a tree. A person entirely dependent on the left hemisphere of the brain to make their way through the world fails to see the left-hand side of things. They have disappeared from their view as emphatically as if they weren’t there at all.

The Tao views the proper handling of life as a balanced understanding of yin and yang, of action and inaction. The inaction is hard for us and seems useless.  According to the Tao, action can be disastrous; sometimes it’s better to retreat to an inaction – which is not passive but an active inaction, a space that is empty but full at the same time. It is a silence that is full. It is a rest that we pant for but can miss realising we need. It is so hard to be balanced in such a topsy turvy place as this.

We could think of a family that may or may not have lived next door to us. When we remember them, we feel equal amounts of attraction and repulsion. They were imperfect like us, but there was a collectiveness about them. They all smelled the same, like warmth, but looked different, like themselves. They did things together that were playful. They seemed, from our baleful longing, to be somewhat naive. They did things that were a little uncool, things that were pointless and playful, and it seemed to make them happy. It made us sad, those things – some of us thought they were dumb but some felt our hackles rise and we had no idea why.  We did not understand the language of games, rituals, rites, dance.  It all looked like a cult.  How could we evaluate what these things actually were and what their point was without reference back to hard squares and boxes? Those games were like a different language and those people stupid and naive. They made us feel contemptuous and at the same time inferior, scared even. They made us feel like we were stoppered, that big wads of ourselves we didn’t even know existed were off flying in the atmosphere when they should have been here with us. They make us remember what we’ve forgotten we forgot.

So this is the time we are in – in a culture which has had a right-hemisphere stroke and it is up to us, as individual cells, to restore the balance. That probably begins with doing the things that we secretly yearn for, the things that feel too luxurious, that we don’t have time for. This breeds more of that thinking that Einstein talked about, the sort that’s different from the kind that got us into this environmental pickle in the first place.

The times call for people who have come alive, and who aren’t afraid to express and to do what’s right. No matter how naive that might seem, even to ourselves.

1 comment

  1. Hmm, I think you are right there re the left hemisphere-only people. They really seem blind to so much that the rest of us see as crucial. It helps me a bit to try to picture them that way, instead of that they see it and go on their destructive, cold way regardless.


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