Monday, March 19, 2012

'important' and 'unimportant'

Which is more compelling, more important -- that which is or that which is not?

The question rises up in my mind not so much as a means of giving a philosophy quiz or an excuse for shaping a religion, but rather as a question that might infuse or just whisper in anyone's perfectly mundane, walking-around life.

In the morning, when things are clear and have not yet quite shaped themselves to meet the day, a husband or wife rises into consciousness and considers with seriousness the bounds and fetters of marital commitment ... if I were single, I might be in Tanzania. A soy bean farmer overhears an acquaintance in a bar saying without malice, "Oh him -- he's just a soy bean farmer." A nun putting out the last of the day's candles catches herself by surprise: "What if God really did exist?" A hospital patient is sick ... but is that all s/he is ... is that the important part ... the unimportant part ... and which is which?

In a hundred, hundred ways in a hundred, hundred lives, there is no escaping what is and there is no escaping what is not. Sometimes the chafing is worse than rug burn. Sometimes it's a matter of recognizable inconsequence. Philosophers and theologians distance themselves from what is important and what is compelling, but individuals find no peace on that luxuriating plain. What is and what is not is personal and sometimes it can be a pisscutter.

In Zen Buddhism, the old men of the past once held out an olive branch to those engaged in such wars. It was like one carpenter holding out a hammer to a fellow carpenter in need. Whether the one in need actually used the hammer was entirely his or her business ... s/he could admire its shape and heft ... or s/he might put it to use. Nevertheless, the old men offered an olive branch sometimes referred to as "The Four Propositions:"

It exists.
It does not exist.
It both exists and does not exist.
It neither exists nor does not exist.

The Four Propositions may sound a little airy-fairy to a soy bean farmer and may invite nothing more than an intellectual beard-stroking on the part of the savant, but an olive branch is just and olive branch and a hammer is just a hammer. Winkling out whether what is or what is not is more important ... it's only as personal and compelling as an individual chooses to make it. For some, there is blood in the veins. For others, a corpse will do.

But as a matter of peace, as a matter of getting things straightened out ... well, I think some tools are pretty good. What is can seem endlessly limited. What is not can seem endlessly unlimited. This ain't rocket science. No one needs to know the four propositions in order to feel the limits of limits or the unlimitedness of unlimitedness. How to reconcile these two, how to make peace where there may be war ... no, it's not rocket science, but it sure can feel messy. And where the limits of intellect and emotion, belief and hope, fail to achieve a peace accord, somehow a yearning that goes beyond facile compromise can rise up, whether for rocket scientists or anyone else.

What is.

What is not.

What is important.

What is unimportant.

What is compelling.

What is inconsequential.

What is limited.

What is limitless.

Each such pair and more like them gambols or wages war in a very personal heart. No matter how tightly anyone closes his or her eyes, still the sun shines and sometimes it is blinding. There is no escaping the importance of what is considered important -- in-your-face important. The limits demand and open-hearted, full-bore attention. If you cannot be anywhere else, where are you? What-is is limited ... endlessly limited. What-is is important ... endlessly important. But what-is-not is unlimited ... endlessly unlimited. It too demands an open-hearted, full-bore attention. What-is-not is important as well, if only because it nags so effectively.

None of this is rocket science. The seen and the unseen, the important and the unimportant, the possible and the impossible ... is any of this more obscure than tying a shoe?

I dunno ... just prattling along here. I guess I was thinking that "important" is a peculiar word with peculiar implications. Is "important" really relevant? Is what-is and what-is-not really the question anyone would like answered?

I dunno. You tell me.

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