The Smiles of the Bathers
The smiles of the bathers fade as they leave the water,
And the lover feels sadness fall as it ends, as he leaves his love.
The scholar, closing his book as the midnight clock strikes, is hollow
The pilot’s relief on landing is no release.
These perfect and private things, walling us in, have imperfect and
Water and wind and flight, remembered words and the act of love
Are but interruptions. And the world, like a beast, impatient and
Waits only for those who are dead. No death for you. You are
What this poem captures for me is the present. This moment to which he gives his unfailing attention. He is keenly aware of what has been delivered and what has failed to be delivered in each image he succinctly illustrates. It is neither incoherent nor artificially sweetened with a vague promise of a possible future. It stands nakedly before you displaying what is in this very moment, yet with the x-ray vision of the poet’s insight.
And it is this examination of the present moment that made me think of this poem when I set out to meditate on the issue of just how faith differs from hope.
I like to think that what makes us unique as a species is the powerful combination of emotional depth and imagination. Our ability to choose to believe a thing for the sake of believing. In storytelling, we call it suspension of disbelief. We temporarily suspend our natural skepticism when we sit down to watch a movie, for instance. When we laugh, or cry, or root for the good guy when watching a movie, that is suspension of disbelief doing its job.
But suspension of disbelief is a two-edged sword. More often than not, it’s our Achilles Heel. “That dark-skinned person is less than human. So is that Jew. And his homosexual friend. The Philistines deserve to die; they’re heathens! We need to wipe the commie scourge from this earth. Look away, children; they worship a different god than we do. Their worship service isn’t like ours. And their Sabbath is on Saturday, so obviously it’s a false religion! Good morning, ma’am; have you heard the Good News about our lord and savior, Jesus Christ?”
Christmas only works because we collectively agree to suspend disbelief and fall into a story about a virgin birth in a pile of hay under a magical star that guides three men who were purportedly wise, yet brought gifts for the newborn that were useless to him. Where are the baby wipes? Spare diapers?
We only leave the water that perfect day on the beach because we believe that wondrous sense of being buoyed by something bigger and more powerful than ourselves will stay with us long enough to fix dinner for the kids and throw some laundry into the washer before it all goes to shit. We agree with the prevailing order to suspend disbelief and hope that doing and seeing and thinking a certain way will ensure it will all work out in the end.
Why do you think so much effort is gone to to ensure we all think the same? That’s what cultural homogenization is all about, isn’t it? I mean, what about rugged individualism? How can we be rugged individuals if we all think the same?
I had met with Lynn to discuss doing the homily today and as the conversation meandered – the way all good conversations do – we ended up talking about hope vs faith. About how when you’re falling out of an airplane with no parachute, you suspend disbelief and hope you hit the ground softly. But faith, faith is what tells you with certainty that the hand that’s been guiding you your enitre life is still cradling you; has been preparing you for this fall all along. Call it God, call it the Universe, call it the Divine. It isn’t the name you give a thing that matters; it’s your experience of it.
It’s immersing yourself in the moment at which time you are experiencing that fall from the airplane. To spend those last few moments removed from the experience with the trickery of hope is to deny the fact that God has given you wings. Metaphorically, please. Any literalists hearing these words please look up the meaning of the word ‘metaphor.’ We really don’t need anyone jumping out of airplanes without a chute to test their faith.
So what does any of this have to do with rugged individualism vs cultural homogeneity?
One is the myth of rugged individualism, while the other is the reality we keep being shoehorned into. A false reality in which we are told again and again we should all think alike. There really is no such thing as rugged individual. You didn’t make the shoes on your feet. Didn’t pave the road you took to get here today. You didn’t fell the trees and plane the lumber that went into building your house. But thinking you are this single, solitary unit capable of going it all alone serves a purpose. What is it? Removing you from this very moment. Giving you the false hope that you are being transported to Never Never Land.
The more the myth of the Rugged Individual keeps being shoved down our throats, the more I lean into it to see what’s behind the curtain. How can we be a homogeneous culture if we’re made up of all these ruggedly individual pieces? It just doesn’t make sense. Even for a paradox junky like me.
Hope. That beast; impatient and quick. That trickster. That thinly veiled mechanism of control intended to take us out of this moment the very moment things get interesting. You gotta admit, the dilemma of falling from an airplane without a parachute is pretty interesting.
As long as we apply hope to the situation, we can live in the illusion that we are separate from the moment, and as such separate from God.
As long as we superimpose false hope over our experience of this life – in all of it’s breathtaking beauty and irredeemable sorrow – we are manageable. We can stay asleep rocked in the lullaby that’s been manufactured for us because God can only be found in a church on Sunday, not present in our lives on a constant basis.
A homogenized culture is a culture that’s gripped in the literalism of myth. Myth that was channeled through our gifted artists, but then melted down and poured into a Jesus-shaped jello mold. Am I a Christian? Don’t ask me that. Ask if I have faith in the perspective He gifted the world with when he was free-falling midair without a parachute, giddy with presence, wrapped in his father’s hand. That gift was the ultimate act of love.
Last week Lynn spoke about immortality, the schools of thought that encourage contemplation of suffering. And while poet Weldon Kees perfectly rendered this illustration of juxtapositions here, what he gave us more than anything else was this reminder that we are not passive witnesses to our own existence. We are involved. Because this life is a participatory art instillation and you are involved. No death for you. You can live on in faith, or you can die clinging to hope.
And in the embracing of the perfect and private connection with the Divine that you find in faith, it is there that you know the only thing that is truly individual. That connection.
How can faith in God be competed with by those wanting to exploit human existence? It can’t. It can only be distracted from. “Think this way. Be like us! Have hope it will all turn out for the best. Put on a happy face when you leave the water, leave the lover, as you close the book that kept you enraptured for a few fleeting hours.”
Which will it be today for you? Hope that when the clock strikes midnight it means there will be a tomorrow; or faith that this moment and you are inextricably woven together in an eternal journey with the Divine?
Which do you think it will be for those who have worked so hard to exploit the human race? Twentieth Century Philosopher George Gurdjieff’s basic philosophy was, in a nutshell, this: If a roomful of people were to fall asleep, it is the responsibility of the first to awaken to then wake the others.
So I will leave you with this one question; if we are collectively waking from the illusion of separation, and questioning the hope that’s kept us tethered to it, how do you think the prevailing order is going to cope? Is it going to slink away and find some other thing to do with its time?
Or is it going to come up with a way to track what we’re doing? How about the way we’re thinking? Is that what mass surveillance is really all about? Rendering moot the very concept of “these perfect and private things?” Is that why privacy itself has become mere illusion?
When I recently read in Science Magazine that advertisers are developing methods for inserting their ads directly into consumers’ minds as we sleep, my own capacity for suspension of disbelief led me to imagine how that technology could be used to keep a sleeping people in a dream indefinitely. Which would make hope little more than a product being sold to us to keep us from buying into faith.
And it would also keep more of us thinking alike. Hoping for the best as we stand in line waiting to pay for the privilege of buying into what we’ve been programmed to consume.