Monday, April 09, 2007

I know when things are working--even though I do not always know how or why

This statement might suggest a thousand situations to someone else, but I have to admit it seems backward to me. Most of the time, when things are working, I don’t pay them any mind; not even a brief moment of pause to say, “Wow, this is working”. Usually, I am only aware of things working by their breaking down. I can tell when something isn’t working and then, as I try to fix the problem, I know if my remedies are working based on the absence of the initial problem.

I was brought up Baptist. It is sometimes common in religious communities to hear people praise God in prosperity but abandon faith in time of trouble. This always seemed backward to me, too. When I was ten, I wrote a poem:

The trees so green
The sky so blue
The birds are seen
The worms are, too

The sun is shining brightly
The car is running smooth
The children are all healthy
The hunting is good, too.

And then I shrug off God
I think I do not need Him
I am so smart
And I’m so good

It’s cloudy and it’s freezing
The engine just blew up
The kids all got pneumonia
The rabbits disappeared

And then I realize
That I’m dumb compared to God
I need Him to help me
And lead me along

Perhaps it’s unhealthy that I have always needed break down to shock me into awareness. But perhaps the ability to perceive that something is “off” or “not quite right” speaks to our intuitive human knowledge of truth and “rightness” or of wholeness.

I also know things are working when the desired outcome is produced. In my poem, the car presumably gets me where I need to go and there is food (apparently rabbit) on the table to indicate the hunting is good (I grew up in Michigan). I know my printer is working because I see my document spitting out of it. I know my son is listening to me because he responds to what I ask. Am I poorer because I don’t know how my printer works or why my particular words softened my son to me? Maybe. But do I need to know how or why something works in order to know that it is working? No. What does this say about us as human beings? What does it say about our ability to find truth?

It is possible to be mistaken or misguided about the truth, but it is also possible to go mad with doubt. Six years ago, I had hit the epistemological rock bottom. I could barely read or write, much less function on a practical level. Depressed, skeptical, cynical and desperate, I asked a wise friend to help un-muddle me. I told him I didn’t know anything, for sure, and I didn’t see any way forward in pursuit of knowledge. Nothing made any sense. He said, “Try to think of one thing you do know, and we’ll go from there.”

I thought about it for a day or two. When we met again, I said, “I’m pretty sure I can put a seed in the ground and it will grow, with proper conditions. And I’m fairly sure that if I plant a bean seed a bean plant will grow and not a tomato plant.”

This was all I could muster. It wasn’t much, but it was also everything. If there was truth and order at this basic level, surely it was possible—though complicated—to discern truth about myself and my situation in the world. I had failed to trust my instincts; I assumed that because I had been wrong before, I could never be right.

What if my tendency to notice glitches isn’t unhealthy, but is part of health—a part of our ability to know when things are working? Our bodies come replete with an innate knowledge of fertile conditions for growth and are adept in signaling us to this effect. Our bodies notice glitches—areas of lack or gaps in health. Signals such as hunger or weariness indicate the need for food or sleep. If conditions are right, we can trust these indicators to have truth behind them. However, if we ignore or abuse these signals, we can throw our entire system out of whack. So I may feel hungry when I am over-fed and tired because of inactivity. In this case, my hunger and tiredness are rather more like symptoms of disease than indicators of need. But interestingly, they are still part of health, part of my immune system, shouting out that something isn’t working right. My skepticism and depression were part of my illness, but their very existence suggested an alternative; suggested that I was falling short of the right way of being.

As a funny coincidence, my printer failed to respond when I tried to print this document (editing is sometimes easier for me when I can see the whole thing at once). I clicked “print” four times before I opened the paper tray and found a jam. I removed the affected paper and straightened the rest of it, then closed the tray. I now have four copies of my document in front of me.