Monday, May 7, 2007

Primal Wounds - Part I

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
-T.S. Eliot

I was very struck by words written by Curtis White in the May/June, 2007 issue of Orion magazine: “Here’s a bald assertion for which I have no proof scientific or otherwise: a human society would never willingly harm nature. This is a way of saying that violence is not part of human nature. This of course contradicts the opinion commonly held by Christianity and science alike that humans are by nature violent. This fatalism has the effect of making us accept wars, the victimization of the vulnerable, and the rapacious destruction of the natural world as tragic but inevitable.” (P. 29)

I am not a scientist, so I cannot offer evidence from that discipline, but as a Christian, I would like to nuance what White said that Christians believe. The Christian opinion that humans are violent by nature is not entirely accurate. Destructiveness is not natural; it inhered to us as a result of sin, and sin is precisely that which seeks to undermine human nature. Sin entered through the escalation of conflict. Conflict and differences have probably always been around, but not at the level of destructiveness and total war that passes for normal in today's world. Natural conflicts flare and pass. Today nothing passes, but is enshrined in an industry of hatred and fear, of dominance, slavery, revenge and rape. How all this came to be – how humanity went from being mostly benign to murderous – is hinted in the tales of the ancient culture heroes, a group of humans and demi-gods who lived about six thousand years ago, at the turn of our own prehistory.

There were many of them, but here are the ones I will name because I know them best; you may name others. Prometheus stole fire from the gods. Gilgamesh and Enkiddu went off adventuring and killed the forest deity Humbaba and cut down his sacred trees. Adam and Eve grew impatient with being merely human and helped themselves to fruit that they believed would turn them into something better. Cain fell into a jealous rage, killed his brother Abel and mistook God’s forgiveness for vindication. All of these acts were, in one way or another, acts of theft. Prometheus took what had not been given him. Gilgamesh and Enkiddu raped a forest. Adam and Eve helped themselves to food. Cain took a life. Had it been possible to bring any of them before a law court, we might have been able to redeem these acts, but there has never been a simple courthouse for felonies against nature. Nature’s court is all the world and all time and if she is slow to render sentence, at least as we reckon time, it does not mean she won’t. If the earth were my age, these crimes would still be only about three hours old. Three hours after a crime, the getaway car is still careening through the streets. Three hours into a trial, the jury is still hearing evidence.

I have to tell you one thing about Nature’s law. It is not a code that can be manipulated or or argued. Nature’s law is straight, outright Gift. You can't argue with Gift, you can only take it or leave it. The law of Gift compels my proactivity to be ready to receive, not to manage or create. This is only to warn that when Gift is the law, theft represents a very serious infraction.

According to those who have pondered such matters, who are mostly the Buddhists who take nature’s laws with enough seriousness to make following them the center of their practice, the karmic effect caused by theft is loss. If, in a past life, I have taken what has not been given me, I will lose something dear in this one. Following this line of reason, tragedy, death, ecological depredation, capitalist inequality, communist bullying, and a whole bunch more awful things, owe their existence less to human nature than to the fact that human society in the West was founded upon theft. Or, as Al Gore put it, a bit more delicately, "We live in an age of consequences."

“The first hit is always free,” say my addict friends, so, yes, it is possible to delude ourselves that these ancient thefts led to Progress or were somehow compelled by Necessity. Prometheus stole fire, and we enjoyed some warmth, but fire made industrialism, war and slavery possible too. Fire is a deep metaphor for catastrophic drought. Gilgamesh and Enkiddu killed Humbaba and stole his trees which meant that man could build some self-important structures, but the gods demanded Enkiddu’s life in payment and death drove Gilgamesh mad. The Middle East became forever a rocky, deforested land. When Adam and Eve stole the fruit for which they were not yet ripe, they renounced their human nature for the chance to play God which, I must confess, looking at the record, we have not done very well. Cain stole his brother’s life and rid himself of a rival, but when he was forgiven by a generous God, he was already deranged and thought he had gotten away with murder. Cain, by the way, is the Judeo Christian founder of agriculture, which says that the Bible would agree that the agricultural revolution, and not industrialism, is where the problem started.

Six thousand years later, we continue to live, perhaps not with the guilt, but certainly with the consequences of this handful of culture heroes. We know about them because they were enshrined in myth. These were the myths with the hidden meanings, in each story tucked a hint as to what we must give back if we are to be saved: the fires of our impulsiveness, the relentless push toward growth without recession and rest, our illusions of wisdom, and our attachment to survival at all costs.

This great cultural story is recapitulated again and again in billions of individual lives. As children we are primally wounded by parents who themselves have been wounded. In a world that refuses to deal with sin, that calls violence inevitable, each of us is going to be shaped by sins that our fear refuses to name. If I cannot name my sin, I will be stuck in it. But if I can find my sin's true name, I can turn it back into gift. That is, after all, what nature asks of me. Naming is only finding the magic word, the word that can transform me. Naming is trusting what I can imagine, what I receive. Naming is trusting the tale.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

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