March 11, 2018

humans are expert at wasting time

So far, machines are not very good at asking questions. So we have this world where, basically, answers have become cheap and ubiquitous and pervasive, and they’re everywhere, and so what’s much scarcer are good questions. And good questions are kind of like a discovery.

…And it turns out that [humans are] not very efficient. And so what machines are really good at are all the things where efficiency counts, where productivity and efficiency counts, and those are the kinds of tasks we’re gonna give to the machines. And we’re, as humans, left with things that are inefficient, which happens to be the things that we enjoy most, like discovery or innovation. Innovation is inherently not efficient — or science, for that matter. Science is inherently inefficient, because if you are 100 percent efficient as a scientist, you’re just not learning anything new. So trial and error, there’s the error part. There’s the failure. There’s the dead ends. There’s trying prototypes. All these things are the essential part of exploring, trying, discovering, which are all inherently inefficient. And so are human relationships. And so we’re — humans are — we’re expert at wasting time. We’re expert at the things where efficiency and programmability don’t count for much.

…And I think, in some ways, that does echo some structure of the universe — that it’s probably built on a question, rather than an answer; that it’s very likely that the universe is really a kind of a question, rather than the answer to anything. And so I think that’s why we resonate with a question — a good question so much, rather than just with a smart answer.

Kevin Kelly is actually a generous family friend (of my father and now of me as well). I love his Christmas letters every year. I’m always delighted and challenged to hear his mind and heart at work. I recommend listening to the unedited version of this conversation. Also, his account of Kevin’s Christian conversion experience in Jerusalem (on NPR’s This American Life) is a wonderful story. Finally, here is Kevin’s essay on The Next 1000 Years of Christianity.

March 8, 2018

Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.

Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.

― Neil Postman, born on this day 1931.

March 6, 2018

all these things are alive in their essence

Supreme and fiery force who has kindled all sparks of life and breathed forth none of death, …fiery life of the divine substance, you blaze above the beauty of the fields, shine in the waters, and burn in the sun, moon, and stars.

You, the fiery force, lie hidden in these things, and they flame forth from you, as breath continually moves a person, and as the moving flame is in the fire. And all these things are alive in their essence. They are not found in death, since I am life.

From the Book of Divine Works by Hildegard of Bingen.

March 1, 2018

the leaping greenly spirits of trees

e e cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Source: Complete Poems 1904-1962.

February 28, 2018

a flame to lay down

I was encouraged to rewrite this poem that I wrote recently:

Your body holds you tighter hourly.
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel.
You have your gasped breaths and throbbing heart.
This morning, your eyes bring less daylight,
and you have let go, almost, of saying.

This less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more.
Today’s snowfall blankets your roof and windows
without your knowing now, joining many here
that taught long of rest and waiting.
These small white bodies
carry downward flames from heaven,
without heat but made of fire still
that banks and burns
in quiet.

Your body holds closer its own light
as a treasure carried far,
carried up, soon, amid a snow that you’ll
know newly,
a flame to lay down before your Lord.

[Note: here’s the first draft.]

February 11, 2018

enough to make me hope there’s a minute or two between death and perdition

“It was all horrible enough to be funny, I suppose. Now that it’s over.”

“Yes, there’s always that to look forward to.” Then he shrugged and said, “It’s enough to make me hope there’s a minute or two between death and perdition.”

Marilynne Robinson in Home.

February 11, 2018

you are unable to be saved alone

You are unable to be saved alone, if all others are not also saved. It is a mistake for one to pray only for oneself, for one’s own salvation. We must pray for the entire world, so that not one is lost. …I am not afraid of hell, and I do not think about Paradise. I only ask God to have mercy on the entire world and on me as well.

St. Porphyrios in Wounded by Love.

February 10, 2018

a wise educator always trades in Beauty and Goodness before Truth

Remarkable interview with Dr. Timothy Patitsas:

You can’t consider yourself educated, unless you at least once have longed to have been born wholly other culturally—to have been born in another time, language, country, whatever. For many people, it’s reading the Tolkien epics that first give them that deep, erotic longing for a transcendent cultural otherness.

And thus Tolkien’s current significance for education, for modern Civilization, is deep. Eros is the beginning of human moral life, and Beauty in art and literature are oftentimes more effective than religion in awakening eros within us. Religion can just seem like God coming down at us, scolding us, telling us to stay where we are, but just do better. But real Religion must awaken the movement in the other direction, to make us come out of our- selves and move towards him, fall in love with him. It’s about beginning an adventure, becoming a pilgrim, an exile, a lover.

…Yes, and that was actually my point in bringing up Tolkien, and the importance of falling in love with other cultures and civilizations, or with something beautiful that can make us forget ourselves. Our lives only begin, our moral struggle only commences, once we’ve loved something enough to want to leave ourselves behind. That can be painful—but ideally it’s never worse than bittersweet.

Incidentally, a wise educator always trades in Beauty and Goodness, before Truth.

…The only real cure for bad eros is good eros, and plenty of it.

…Many times, starting with goodness—with the attempt to be good and to stop sinning—is a recipe for moral disaster, as we shall see.

…However often we fall, we cannot attack pride directly as our first priority. Rather, we return to the front lines: our simple devotion to Christ, our fasting, our chastity, and the sacred beauty our brothers, sisters, enemies, and all of creation. To contemplate this goodness, to be illumined, we must give alms. We are then illumined in both senses—we contemplate correctly, and our light “shines before men.”

…We will then look back upon that first vision of that person’s beauty, as the moment when our lives started, when we “came to be” out of a kind of nothing. We will know for ourselves what it means to be created ex nihilo, and we will weep.

…We talked about war in general, and trauma, as an anti-liturgy. Whereas liturgy knits our individual character together and integrates us; whereas liturgy promotes communion and deepens our connection to others and God and the whole of nature; and whereas liturgy teaches us the profound truth of who God really is, and thus who we are and who the world is—well, war and trauma reverse all this. They unravel our character by breaking our connection to beauty; drive us from close communion with others so that we don’t have the opportunity to be good; and teach us lies about God, others, the world, and ourselves.

The healing of the soul begins with noticing God’s many theophanies, and with falling in love with them. In other words, it begins with Beauty. In renewing our love for authentic Beauty, we slowly are cleansed of the ugly images of trauma and the false images of worldly pleasures. Our character, unraveled by what we experienced, begins to be knit together, to become whole again. We begin to be “created” again.

…First, the Beautiful: Shay says we begin when we take the trauma victim out of the ugly circumstances inciting the trauma. We bring them to good patterns of life, to friendships, to self-care. All of this represents the return of Beauty to the life. Good Patterns—in the Christopher Alexander sense of Patterns in Architecture, but applicable to patterns of action and self-care and relating.

…Shay knew that The Iliad was the crucial text; so did Simone Weil. I love the way that it combines beauty and goodness, art with empathy. In it, in its profound hearing, brother soldiers came together for a week or so, to listen to a beauty that made them forget themselves, in a safe context of hospitality and unity. Within that Beauty was Goodness, the empathic love. As we said last time, there are no enemies in The Iliad, only noble soldiers, trapped in war on both sides. Before such a monument of Beauty and Empathy, we can safely weep, practicing empathy for others—and by extension for ourselves.

You know, Truth isn’t really a “third moment.” If you have Beauty and Goodness, Truth is right there, inside them both. That weeping in the hearing of The Iliad is one of the moments that you are most alive—most true.

…All kinds of things are going on invisibly within us when we pray, though outwardly nothing has changed and we feel only the same. Although you mean everything to God, and He welcomes your urgent cries, sometimes He may be arranging things with your long-term interest in mind. And in the meantime, when you are being crucified by the trauma flashbacks, know that you are with God; you are his icon. But your strength is also limited, and He will descend.

February 4, 2018

teaching long of rest and waiting

These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:

My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart

This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying

Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
In quiet

My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord

Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”

And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:

And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.

From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.

…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

February 1, 2018

speech connects us so immediately and vitally because it is a physical, bodily process

Ursula K. Le Guin in “Telling Is Listening” found in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination:

The community created by printing and by secondary orality is not immediate; it is virtual. It can be enorrnous—the size of America. Indeed it may be literacy more than any other factor that has enabled or coerced us to live in huge nation-states instead of tribes and city-states. Possibly the Internet will allow us to outgrow the nation-state. Although the Global Village McLuhan dreamed of is at present a City of Night, a monstrous force for cultural reductionism and internationally institutionalised greed, who knows? Perhaps we shall soar electronically to some arrangement that works better than capitalism.

But so vast a community must remain more concept than tangible fact. Written word, printed word, reproduced speech, filmed speech, the telephone, e-mail: each medium links people, but it does not link them physically, and whatever community it creates is essentially a mental one.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” It is marvelous that we can talk to living people ten thousand miles away and hear them speak. It is marvelous that by reading their words, or seeing a film of them, we may feel communion even with the dead. It is a marvelous thought that all knowledge might be accessible to all minds.

But marriage is not of minds only; and the living human community that language creates involves living human bodies. We need to talk together, speaker and hearer here, now. We know that. We feel it. We feel the absence of it.

Speech connects us so immediately and vitally because it is a physical, bodily process, to begin with. Not a mental or spiritual one, wherever it may end.

…In most cases of people actually talking to one another, human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.

In human conversation, in live, actual communication between or among human beings, everything “transmitted” — everything said — is shaped as it is spoken by actual or anticipated response.

Live, face-to-face human communication is intersubjective. Intersubjectivity involves a great deal more than the machine-mediated type of stimulus-response currently called “interactive.” It is not stimulus-response at all, not a mechanical alternation of precoded sending and receiving. Intersubjectivity is mutual. It is a continuous interchange between two consciousnesses. Instead of an alternation of roles between box A and box B, between active subject and passive object, it is a continuous intersubjectivity that goes both ways all the time.

…Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.

…When you can and do entrain, you are synchronising with the people you’re talking with, physically getting in time and tune with them. No wonder speech is so strong a bond, so powerful in forming community.

…The voice creates a sphere around it, which includes all its hearers: an intimate sphere or area, limited in both space and time.

Creation is an act. Action takes energy.

Sound is dynamic. Speech is dynamic — it is action. To act is to take power, to have power, to be powerful. Mutual communication between speakers and listeners is a powerful act. The power of each speaker is amplified, augmented, by the entrainment of the listeners. The strength of a community is amplified, augmented by its mutual entrainment in speech.

…This is why utterance is magic. Words do have power. Names have power. Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.

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