Spider web decals

A large grackle bangs into the window pane but flies off. I suppose the spider web decals put up last year have worked, for fewer birds strike the pane in their flight, unlike last year when many did and a cardinal died on impact.

The decals look somewhat like a spider web, but I tell myself that they wouldn’t fool me if I were a bird. Why, I’d probably fly straight into one and suffer the collision. If birds have better eyesight than humans, they would presumably detect the false web and ignore it.

Birds are smarter than I think. After all, who on a morning walk stumbles into a long spider’s thread laid out overnight from tree to shrub? At least a thread is not a web and easily reparable for the spider who must be watching in consternation at the clumsy destruction of his handiwork. And then, returning to the house after the morning foray of thread breaking, I glance at one of the spider web decals and imagine that an insect sitting on the pane has been “caught.”

Sturm und Drang

I came across a “prayer against storms” the other day — not from medieval or scriptural time but one composed very recently by a well-meaning common person. It was an inadvertent admission of very unfortunate sentiments.

No one welcomes personal or property damage from a storm, of course, but we must nevertheless recognize that someone will suffer from it given population patterns, geography, or just plain statistics. To pray for one’s protection, then, while an honest desire to escape injury, can be an inadvertent wish that someone else suffer instead of or other than oneself. Perhaps silence and self-sufficiency should be our quiet response, with hearts extended to those who may suffer.

Then, too, this prayer calls the storm “evil” and “malevolent.” If the storm averts the petitioner, then presumably this confirms moral superiority. If the storm strikes someone (anyone), then it is due to sinfulness or inferiority. We can be glad to be spared a storm, but to petition for exceptions rather than watch for the patterns of nature and prepare for them as best one can seems sufficient. Let’s add tsunamis, earthquakes, fires, mudslides, and other natural disasters to the list. Soon, however, we must wonder whether human-made conditions through environmental degradation or living in precarious places contribute to our uneasiness on the planet. Science can inform us but also free us from cultural bias, the implicit premise of such a form of prayer.

Worse than a myopic view of nature, such a form of petition can be extrapolated to human events, justifying all kinds of actions based on averting “evil” or “malevolent” people, cultures, and events. Or when they happen, this mindset leads to the intention to strike back with equal malevolence, like a curse against God and fortune played out with vengeance. Like meteorology, there is a science of human affairs that will point out the causes and conditions that give rise to human “Sturm und Drang.”

We need to view nature as a context, not an object, as a setting, not a prop. Likewise we must view other people, cultures, and events as part of our context as beings on the same planet. Our status as recollected and thoughtful individuals — which ought to be the lot of the solitary — should give us a reflective and desireless heart. We are intrinsically within a context or setting as animate players on a grand and complex stage.

Stoic fates

Of the classical Stoics, Seneca is appealing because he represents the tragic middle between Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Having risen from slavery to freedom, Epictetus is optimistic, while the emperor Marcus carries a gravitas difficult for us commoners to grasp, stemming as it does from his most private thoughts on the paradoxes of absolute power, morality, and the desire for solitude. Seneca’s famous line about chains includes all of us:

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves.

Seneca’s daily life and duty was to survive the household of the capricious and powerful emperor Nero with decorum not revulsion, to tolerate the sycophants around him while at the same time performing his duty as tutor and counselor with aplomb and detachment. His writings superbly capture this underlying tension, but never let on what his daily life is really like. Later critics have called him a hypocrite for it, but that would make all but the most thorough-going hermit among us so.

An anecdote (probably apocryphal) about another mad emperor, Caligula, reveals the delicate and impossible situation of such an advisor. On the evening of a full moon, Caligula flung open his window curtains to let the goddess Diana enter. “There she is!” he exclaims to Vitellius. “Do you not see her?” The wary Vitellius answers, “Alas, only you gods can see one another.” Alas, indeed. Seneca was forced by Nero to kill himself. Vitellius, however, was one of the first to proclaim Caligula a god, though also one of the leading conspirators in Caligula’s overthrowal and assassination.

Consciousness

Depak Chopra has written that “reality is formed by consciousness.” This is not eighteenth-century Bishop Berkeley’s idealism, but states a deceptively simple truth: we make reality through our perceptions, values, goals, and will.

Consciousness refers to the deepest part of our being. Reality is the insight elicited when consciousness comes into contact with events around us, in society, in culture, among people and animals and plants, with our physical environment. Of course, no single person can change events around them, so Chopra’s goal is to get all of us thinking in the right way, in a wise way, in order to change the malevolent events around us. Presumably, if the consciousness of enough people changes then the events change.

Rather than dismiss that possibility as hopeless, we must begin at a simpler level, with oneself. How, for example, do we perceive a tree? Is it a mere commodity, something expendable, something in our way? Or is it a living being with an identiy, projecting certain values that then resonate with our own values to create a relationship? This is a very simplistic notion of consciousness, but consciousness must begin with our most immediate environment. It is in this immediate place and time that we exist and act. How we perceive things really does matter to their fate, to our fate, and to the fate of the universe.

Such an exercise is essential for the solitary, for solitaries already have a propensity to cut off the standard plaudits of society and culture, to question their make-up — and therefore, to examine their “reality” and relevance to the real goal of our lives, which is the development of consciousness to the point of making us wise beings. Tall order this, but isn’t it merely an extrapolation of what we are already doing with our daily lives? We assign value and hierarchy to everyhing anyway. Why not do so consciously and reflectively? We may discover that reality changes for us, incrementally at least, in this sense: that while we find ourselves more at odds with the conventional world and its assumptions, we also, paradoxically, become more sensitive, more conscious, more in harmony with everything around us that is real.

Zeno and the Way

A favorite Western counterpart to the story recounted by the Japanese Zen master Bassui (see June 14) is about Zeno, a Christian desert hermit, and runs like this:

In a certain village lived a man who fasted so much that he was called “the Faster.” Abba Zeno, hearing of him, had him come and visit, which the Faster did with alacrity. So together they sat down to pray in silence. This silence must have gone on for a little while, for the Faster grew restless until he finally told Zeno that he wanted to leave. Zeno asked why. The Faster said: “My heart is on fire. I don’t know what is the matter with me. When I am in the village and fast until nightfall, nothing like this ever happens to me.” The old man Zeno replied quietly, “That is because in the village you are fed through your ears. Go now, but from now on eat at the ninth hour and whatever you do, do it in secret.”

And so it happened that soon the Faster could not wait even until that hour to take a meal. He lost the esteem of the villagers, who had filled his ears with plaudits. They dismissed him now as possessed by a devil. When the Faster went to Zeno to tell him all this, Zeno replied, “This way is according to God.”

To be fed by the crowd and suspend natural virtues for the flattery and adulation of others is to deny the value of any virtue. It is better to conform to nature than to posture and pretend to virtue before others. Humility and self-effacement are better than the false esteem of others. Silence and solitude, like fasting, can have no end but rather are a means to a way or path that is — however we construe it — “according to God.”