Archive for March 3rd, 2010

Spirits in the Material World

(I’ll veer away from politics, economics and the like today for a different kind of post)

On March 1, 1960 at 7:47 PM I entered this world.   As I recall, the light was far too bright, the air too cold, and the need to do things like eat and breath positively annoying.   But I’ve gotten used to that, and the eating bit has turned out to be much more pleasant than I expected.   Yet even after fifty years, I can’t shake the feeling that life in this world is very limiting and somewhat weird.

To quote The Police I believe we are spirits in the material world.   The reason that things get frustrating and induce anger, despair, anxiety and dissatisfaction is that this world is not really our home.   Yet, it’s the only world I know.    I find myself, therefore, pulled in two different directions.   Part of me feels a connection to that spiritual realm — something hard to convey in the language of this space-time reality.  It’s a sense that everything does make sense, there is a complex and paradoxical order to the world, perhaps like a great musical masterpiece.   When I feel that, it becomes easier to go through the daily hum drum routine, and annoyances and problems that arise.

The other side of me is firmly in this world, materialist with a desire for justice.   That part of me gets angry at injustice, wants to fight against exploitation and limits on human freedom.   That part of me takes politics seriously, worries about my children, gets mad when friends are mistreated, exercises and goes on diets to feel and look better, and takes on overload assignments to earn more money.   I am a consumer and I often indulge myself without regard to others, the environment, or the consequences of my actions.

These two sides of me sometimes flow together and complement each other, sometimes they pull me in different directions.    At my worst, the spiritual side leads me to escapism, dampens my concern about the world, and encourages material self-indulgence.   This was more common when I was younger —  at those times I would hope for a miracle or some kind of change to sweep into my life and unite the spiritual world I know exists, that could fill me with contentment and a sense of meaning,  with the material reality that can seem so boring and meaningless, yet also so tempting.

At my best my spiritual self can give perspective to my material self.   It can keep me from over-reacting, help me fight battles for justice and liberation without falling into a kind of manically true believer mentality, and can separate out differences of opinion on politics with personal animosity.   That self can bring balance to my material existence, and show me how to value friends, family, community and not get caught up in the ambitions and petty distractions of the world.

My spiritual self says, “Scott, this isn’t home, this isn’t true reality, this existence doesn’t matter, it’s gone in a flash, has no permanence, and all that matters here is what’s spiritually inside.”   This part of me would be happy as a monk in pre-renaissance Europe, with an Augustinian notion that I may be in the world, but not of it.   My material self says, “home or not, I’m here, and there must be a reason for it.   I’m here and this is the world I need to deal with.”

I need both sides.   Only my spiritual side gives me a real sense of love, moving beyond lust or instinct.  My material side gives me a sense of purpose in this world, pushing aside my escapist urge.   The good thing about getting older is I find the two sides of me swimming together rather than pulling me in different directions.   Life is good.   The world is full of ugliness, but that ugliness isn’t reality, it’s a material reflection of both our (as in humanity) and my own imperfections and limits.   I can’t change the world, but I can change myself.  And the better I try to live in accord with my principles and values, and more likely I can help change a small section of the world — and that’s all any of us can do.