Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Getting Off the Ground

I feel like I'm on one of those huge jets that takes a long time to get off the ground. Initially, you worry a little ("is this thing too heavy to fly?!"); then you feel like you're just an inch off the ground for a rather long time ("is the runway long enough?!"); and then you lift up so smoothly and quickly that you can hardly believe it.

(The contrast is those smaller planes that feel like they bolt straight up, leaving your stomach far below. Often they toss about a bit on their way up, and it seems to take forever to get to a smooth crusing altitude. About then, the pilot comes on and announces that you are about to begin your descent, while the flight attendants are hurridly trying to finish giving everyone their little pretzel packets.)

I'm at the "inch off the ground" stage. The semester is taking off, but my plane is big and full and heavy. I'm trying hard to have faith that soon we'll be fully airborne. There's a lot to attend to during this early stage, but if I attend well, we will be well-set-up to have a beautiful flight!

I'm a little astonished to find myself using an airplane metaphor, since I do get anxious about flying. But, well, that's why the metaphor is so apt.

At the same time that I get a bit anxious about flying, I also am just amazed that it is possible, and I am struck with a kind of spiritual beauty about flying. The views can be stunning. And flying offers a perspective on the world that is humbling.

I find that much of my anxiety is rooted in a question that always haunts me: "Are we supposed to be doing this? Are we allowed?" It's a strange question. Of course we are allowed. The laws of physics do permit it. Why not marvel at human creativity and human ingenuity? Am I afraid just because it's dangerous? But there is much that we do that is dangerous. Life is dangerous. We all must die. I know all this, and so it's not that... It's something else that tugs at me, and the way I've phrased the question begins to get at it.

When I ask that question, I don't just mean, "are we supposed to fly all around like this?" but I look at our impact on the planet far below, and the patterns of fields and roads and cities are so visible, and I cannot decide if I regard it all as beautiful, like creative artwork, or ugly, like scars. We have an impact -- a very visible one. We have changed the face of the planet. Is this okay? Is it good, or is it harmful?

I am immersed in deep ambivalence about being human.

So, no wonder this is the metaphor that comes to me as I face the start of a new semester. I feel a similar ambivalence about the whole academic world. Is it basically great, or terrible? I have this vision for what I hope it can be, but it seems so far from being that. So it is like when I am in the airplane. I see what our planet looks like from a great distance, and I have a vision for how I'd like it to be, and they don't fully match up. But who am I anyway to decide what it should be like?

Some spiritual traditions address the basic angst of human existence by encouraging the cultivation of a radical acceptance of what is.

But I cannot help but think that there is spiritual significance to our restless uneasiness and the continual arising of new longings. I'm not saying that every anxiety and desire is in itself good, necessarily. But we live forever caught between acceptance of what is, and longing for what we think should be -- this is the fundamental problem of human existence. How do we negotiate this constant tension? Out of that tension comes creative energy. Much of that creative energy can be transformative in good ways.

This is the essence of human freedom, and many (all?) spiritual traditions regard human freedom as a gift from the divine. A difficult gift, maybe, but a gift nonetheless.

So, I do know the answer: yes, we are allowed to fly. Yes, we are allowed to start universities, and continue to keep universities running, even if they are not perfect. Yes, I am allowed to get tenure and stay here, even if I continue to feel a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of this kind of work. Yes, all of this is okay, even if we muddle up, sometimes catastrophically.

There is something else going on, just behind a curtain. In airplanes, and during major transitions, like the start of a new semester and a new mode of being, I almost feel I can catch a glimpse, and it is that that is what is so soul-shaking. There is more to reality than meets the eye.

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