Friday, February 19, 2010

the consolations of sorrow

The endless ads and commentary that accompanied the winter Olympics on TV left me looking around for some other couch-potato entertainment last night. I like watching athletes do what they do, but have almost zero interest in what others think about what they do.

So I settled for "Armageddon," a 1998, end-of-the-world, action-adventure/sci-fi movie and used its advertising as an excuse to switch back to the Olympics, where I actually did get to see a few people snowboarding and skiing slalom.

In "Armageddon," an asteroid is threatening to destroy the earth and everything/everyone on it. The only option is to send a group of off-beat oil-drillers up to dig a hole in the oncoming asteroid, plant a nuclear bomb and blow the thing up. As a means of underlining the seriousness of the impending disaster, there were occasional soulful shots of people in different parts of the world -- friends, enemies, religions, kids ... everyone was going to get frozen or fried if the oil-drillers failed. Message: What difference does it make who we love and who we hate? -- we're all in this shit together; oneness is true, divisions are superficial; everyone fears death.

What is it about disaster that is so consoling? Sure, the movie was just a small bag of potato chips on which to idly munch, but the consolations of disaster have personal and political and religious nesting places as well. The Bible does it; political leaders use it to create patriotism or as a means of assuring their jobs; Hollywood makes money from it, though probably not as much as the church; and individuals can sometimes experience disasters in their own lives ... a real and serious refuge ... but a refuge from what?

Who would I be without my worries?

In "Armageddon," the off-beat drillers succeed in their task. The world is saved. The hero and heroine kiss and the American flag never looked so red-white-and-blue as it flapped in the wind. It was an OK bag of potato chips ... or at least more interesting than the ads and commentary during the winter Olympics.

During the parts of the TV Olympics where the athletes did what they did so well, there were marvelous efforts, marvelous successes, marvelous defeats, marvelous mediocrities. It was wonderful stuff, or anyway I liked it. It was straightforward and human and painted a picture of human endeavor. Heaven and hell became the property of commentators and ad shills. Going 70 miles per hour down a slope was ... well, this was it; this was this.

What would heaven be without hell? What would hell be without heaven? What would war be without peace? What would peace be without war? Each brings a spice and focus to the other and without spice ... well, who would I be? Wouldn't it be boring? Wouldn't things lack savor? I don't honestly know, but I do know that knowing is easier and less frightening than finding out. Since spice is the spice of ordinary life, the notion that there might be some other settling option is too unsettling. And so it continues, around and around, one thing relying on the other, one person relying on the other to provide spice and consolation and importance.

It's not a bad thing or even particularly unusual, but it does raise the question, is it true? Is there another way of approaching things -- a way that is not constantly relying on the spicy consolation of worry or disaster which gives meaning to the spicy consolation of peace or success ... and vice versa?

The only way to know is to find out. Sure, others can point the way, but without finding out in a quite intimate setting -- your setting -- how could you ever find out something that was not just more of the same ... same ol' same ol'.? Is the world bent on your consolation? Is the world bent on your destruction? What makes you think the world -- or this life -- worries about such things in the first place? The only way to know is to find out.

What would enlightenment be without samsara? What would compassion be without enduring cruelty? What would heaven be without hell? Who would you be without me?

Christians and Jews, I believe, have been known to say that God cannot be known -- that the way to know God is through his works. It's pretty much the same with anyone who takes an interest in the ineffable. The ineffable, after all, is not effable, if that's a word. So it is in the doing, in the downhill skiing, in the couch-potato enjoyment of a TV movie, in the consolations of gloom and doom ... that God can be known ... at least according to some.

But belief systems, however sweet and however true, never assuaged uncertainty, never settled the scene, never broke the links between heaven and hell. What will break those links? Only you can do that. Sorry, but there is no other option: It may be boring and it may be scary and it may be elevating and it may require courage and patience and doubt ... but there is no other option for anyone who wants to take a break from this heaven-and-hell, war-and-peace, joy-and-sorrow, consolation-and-desolation hamster wheel.

"Armageddon" ended happily; the winning and losing skiers had made their runs ... and out in the kitchen, there was a beef-stew pot soaking in soapy water ... it really did need to be scrubbed.

And I didn't require any conviction in order to do it. Just soap, water and elbow grease.

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