Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Plus ca change...

Yesterday some friends were showing us the new playroom they had built over their garage. They had spent two months in Bhutan, and had brought back a prayer wheel, which they had mounted by the back door of the garage and habitually spun whenever they left or entered the building.

I thought of that prayer wheel this morning, as I was reading Thomas Merton's observations about his own writing. "Keeping a journal," he says, "has taught me that there is not so much new in the interior life as one sometimes thinks.

"When you reread your journal," he goes on, "you find out that your newest discovery is something you found out five years ago. Still, it is true that one penetrates deeper and deeper into the same ideas and the same experiences."

I'd like to think that's true; that though, like the prayer wheel, we keep spinning through the same sequences, we are bringing something newer and deeper with each visit. But it seems equally possible that when we keep revisiting the same thoughts and experiences we might wonder if they are authentically our own inspirations, or whether they might be, like this somewhat fake-looking replica of Stonehenge that overlooks the Columbia River, a rather weak and outdated pattern, an inferior mimicry of someone else's views that we've somehow set in stone for ourselves.

I suppose it's a bit like the popular conception of Karma -- sort of like the woman who repeatedly dates the same kind of guy, with the same predictable results; constantly replicating a bad experience without ever making any observable forward progress. Are we, indeed, like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, doomed to repeat endlessly the same unfortunate sequence of thoughts or events? And if so, what would break the cycle -- or is it, in fact, meant to be broken? What if it is our job to keep walking the same path, as an example to inspire some other observer to make different choices or to draw different conclusions?

Though this Stonehenge is a copy, that does not apparently preclude its viability as a tourist site; it still offers a delightful opportunity to stop and appreciate the glorious vistas that lie beyond its precast columns. There is a certain thoughtfulness and originality evident in having made the choice to erect this particular edifice in this particular spot.

We Americans seem to be obsessed with originality, with claims to be new and different. From our writing and art to our cereal and automobiles, we are desperate to be coming up with the latest and greatest in our quest to win friends, influence enemies, and make pots of money by creating or capitalizing on the latest fads. The obsession with more and better and newer affects a disproportionately large number of life choices, from clothing to preschools to jobs to colleges to food fads and mate choices; it's no wonder we could create a musical with the title, Stop the World I Want to Get Off.

Yes, we don't want to get stuck in old thought patterns or old life patterns -- especially if they are not an accurate depiction of what we honestly think, feel, or believe. But it seems to me there is a wisdom in choosing to re-visit, to re-evaluate, to contemplate, to deepen our understanding of the choices we make; of how we live and what we learn from that. Just because it may seem that we are endlessly pushing the same rock up the same hill, that is not necessarily a reason to give up. Merton's take on Camus is that "because life is absurd that is all the more reason for living, and for refusing to surrender to its absurdity."

Merton sees The Myth of Sisyphus as "a first step toward a kind of modest hope...a valid affirmation of freedom: the only freedom man has, the freedom to keep going even though a certain logic might seem to prove that resistance is useless." On the contrary, says Merton, the meaning of life is to be FOUND in resistance; in constantly evaluating and determining to speak whatever truth you find. "When you realize that you may be shot for your editorial," said Camus, "you weigh what you say. You make sure you mean it."

Yes, we may be continuing to recycle through the same thoughts and behaviors. But as long as we are conscious about those thoughts and behaviors; as long as we are aware and present and operating out of a thoughtful space where the choices continue to be choices rather than just autonomic reactions to familiar situations, there can be a depth and beauty to the inevitable cycling/recycling that goes on.

So it's good, actually, to revisit old decisions, to re-examine history, our own and our society's, and to realize that we may have been on this road before. Perhaps the perspective -- and humility -- we gain from realizing that, as the French say, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," will allow us to become more deeply human and more fully divine in our understanding of the human condition.


Stacey Grossman said...

Diane, your words cause me to reflect on what I have learned about the photographer's eye. Over the years (especially with the advent of digital and no more need to worry over the cost of every shot) I return again and again to photograph those objects and people and places which resonate most deeply. The returns are often, from all outward appearances, to ordinary, mundane, plain places: the agave plants at Mt. Calvary Monastery (rest in peace) at sunrise, for example, one of my favorites.

Then one day, unexpectedly, I find that the quality of the images themselves have changed: a deeper essence, if you will. And I believe this has to do with this pattern of revisiting. And photography, like journalling, is one of those places where the only one bored with the repetition is the one making the words or the image. So, as I teach about journalling, repeat with abandon!! It just might take you someplace unexpected.

drw@bainbridge.net said...

Thanks so much for that reminder; I actually think I blogged about that very thing about a year and a half ago -- and isn't that an illustration of the whole point!

You're absolutely right; it's GOOD to revisit, to go deeper into the old; we don't always need "new stuff"!